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Taiwan constitutional court hears debate on same-sex marriage (update)

2017/03/24 23:30

Taipei, March 24 (CNA) Taiwan's Constitutional Court on Friday heard arguments over whether the country's marriage law is unconstitutional because it does not legally recognize same-sex marriages.

Fourteen grand justices heard the debate, which focused on whether Taiwan's Civil Code should allow same-sex marriage and if not, whether that violates articles under the Constitution of the Republic of China pertaining to equality and marriage freedom.

It also addressed whether setting up a separate system, such as a same-sex partnership system, instead of treating same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples under the current law, violates the Constitution.

"I have waited for this day for 41 years, six months and 24 days," gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei (祁家威), who is one of the petitioners requesting the constitutional interpretation, told the court.

Chi, who has been pursuing legal channels to have his union with his partner recognized as a legal marriage in Taiwan since the 1980s, said gay people have been clinically proven to be normal people, and that marriage is also a normal thing.

"Why can't normal people be allowed to do normal things?" he asked.

Friday's debate was held as a result of two requests for a constitutional interpretation on the issue of gay marriage. One of the requests was filed by Chi in 2015, after his marriage registration was rejected by a district household registration office and his subsequent court appeals failed.

The other request was filed by the Taipei City government's Department of Civil Affairs in 2015 after three same-sex couples who had their marriage registrations rejected by the city launched an administrative lawsuit against the government.

The debate, broadcast live on the Internet, was attended by 14 grand justices, Chi, Justice Minister Chiu Tai-san (邱太三), Taipei City government representative and law professor Bruce Liao (廖元豪), and officials from the Ministry of the Interior and Wanhua District Household Registration Office, as well as six appraisers.

During the four-hour debate, Chi's lawyer Victoria Hsu (許秀雯) said gay people are not seeking pity, but are merely asking to be given the right to choose who they marry, which she said is an individual's basic right.

Chiu, whose ministry administers the Civil Code which includes provisions on marriage, said the call for same-sex marriage did not appear until the 1970s, but the Civil Code was established much earlier, in 1930, and does not have a mechanism for same-sex marriage.

Household registration offices could risk violating the Constitution by accepting marriage registrations from same-sex couples, Chiu said.

He said same-sex marriage legislation has progressed gradually in many countries, with many adopting same-sex partnership laws first before same-sex marriage laws.

A hasty, one-step approach would definitely have a great impact on social order and on areas such as inheritance and ancestral worship, Chiu said.

(Chiu Tai-san (right))

(Chi Chia-wei before entering the court)

(supporters of same-sex marriage rally outside of the Judicial Yuan)

Meanwhile, Liao said the city government believes that the Civil Code should protect same-sex marriage and that failure to recognize same-sex marriage violates the Constitution.

Marriage is a system that continues to change with time; in ancient times, men were allowed to have multiple wives and women could be divorced if they could not give birth, but those practices are no longer allowed, Liao said.

Fifty years ago, gay people were excluded and could only survive in the dark corners of society, but laws such as the Gender Equity Education Act have prohibited discrimination against sexual orientation, Liao noted.

Gay people are human beings and citizens just like everyone else and are worthy of respect and protection, he said.

Yuan Hsiu-hui (袁秀慧), commissioner of the Taipei City Department of Legal Affairs, said the city government has received marriage applications from over 300 same-sex couples over the past two years, showing a need for the issue to be discussed.

Law professor Lee Hwai-tzong (李惠宗), who serves as one of the appraisers, said there is currently no legal protection for gay people, who should be protected by the Constitution, and that legislative neglect itself could be unconstitutional.

Chen Hwei-syin (陳惠馨), a law professor and another appraiser, opposed drafting a separate same-sex marriage law, saying the legalization of same-sex marriage should be done by revising the Civil Code.

A separate law, however, could be drafted to handle matters outside of marriage, such as handling discrimination against married same-sex couples, she said.

Hsu Tzong-li (許宗力), the presiding judge, said the court will choose a date within a month to announce when it will issue an interpretation.

The Constitutional Court debate is seen as giving supporters of same-sex marriage renewed momentum, after a same-sex marriage bill passed its initial screening at a legislative committee in December last year.

If the bill is passed or if the constitutional court rules that marriage laws in the Civil Code are unconstitutional by not allowing same-sex marriage, Taiwan could be the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

On Friday, groups for and against gay marriage rallied outside of the Judicial Yuan and occasional shouting matches broke out between the two camps.

In response to the debate, Tseng Hsien-ying (曾獻瑩), a representative of the Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance, a group opposing same-sex marriage, said only the voice of gay marriage supporters was heard in the debate, calling it "unfair."

He said an issue as controversial as same-sex marriage should not be decided by a few grand justices, who are appointed by the president, but should be decided by the people or by lawmakers, who are elected by the people.

(Tseng Hsien-ying (second from the right))

(same-sex marriage supporters watching the live streaming of the debate at a nearby restaurant)

(By Christie Chen, Chu Che-wei and Wang Yang-yu)ENDITEM/J/cs