Italian Senate Adopts Civil Union Bill

But LGBT rights groups say the package is discriminatory and vow to keep fighting "in the streets and in the courts."

The Italian Senate signed off on legislation on Thursday creating a civil union status for same-sex couples after a bitter debate that dominated Italian politics for months.

The vote was 173 in favor and 71 against, Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported.The bill must now must be approved by the Parliament’s lower house, but it is expected to encounter much less resistance there than it did in the Senate.

But if the legislation is adopted in its current form, it will not be an end to the fight over same-sex couples’ rights. The government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi traded away provisions important to LGBT activists in order to clear the path for Thursday’s vote, including a person’s right to adopt the child of a same-sex partner. LGBT groups are vowing a new fight against Renzi’s ruling coalition and litigation challenging provisions that they see as discriminatory.

“Pontius Pilate could not have done better,” a broad coalition of LGBT groups said in a statement denouncing the compromise issued shortly before the Senate vote, calling for a protest on March 5. If this bill is adopted, the groups said, would make Italy “unlike almost any other country in [the European Union] and unique among its founding countries, [ignoring] completely the existence and needs of the sons and daughters of gay couples.”

“Now our battle — concluding the associations — will continue in the streets and in the courts,” they vowed.

The open wounds left by this fight will not only keep the battle alive in Italy, but could become a problem for major European institutions.

Daniele Viotti, a member of the Parliament of the European Union from Italy’s ruling Democratic Party, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that he was calling on the E.U.’s executive body — called the European Commission — to enact regulations that would require member states to recognize adoptions and other “public documents related to civil status” from one another. The E.U. technically has no jurisdiction over family law in member states, but these issues affect freedom of movement for LGBT people throughout the continent which does fall under the E.U.’s domain.

“I think Europe will ask Italy for more and I hope Italy will be ready for more,” said Viotti, who is also co-president of the Parliament’s LGBT rights caucus. “Dropping stepchild adoption is dreadful because it leaves children without protection. The fight is not over.”

But Viotti said, the European Commission has “become a lot more timid” in pushing LGBT rights. The Commission is also now facing a grassroots effort by conservatives, called “Mum, Dad, and Kids.” The group is using a relatively new mechanism, installed to make the E.U. more democratic, to mount a petition drive to pressure the E.U. to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

But the Italian civil union fight shows that national governments are increasingly willing to ignore the exhortations from the European Union’s seat in Brussels and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, said Grégor Puppinck. Puppinck is one of the organizers of the “Mum, Dad, and Kids” initiative and director of the Strasbourg-based European Center for Law and Justice, a Christian conservative group affiliated with Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice.

“Maybe pressure from Brussels or Strasbourg are quickly diminishing in many aspects and I think one of the first aspects that are collapsing is the purely ideological power,” Puppinck said. The E.U. is currently challenged by fundamental governance questions while countries including the United Kingdom and Russia are refusing to honor rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Puppinck said. “To some extent we are witnessing collapse of the system.”

But Europe’s institutions hold some of LGBT activists’ best hope to push Italy forward. The ECHR helped force passage of the civil union bill with a ruling last July that Italy had violated same-sex couples rights by denying legal recognition, and some Italian activists are already contemplating how to get this legislation back before the courts.

“We will definitely start soon to plan new legal actions saying that the law is discriminatory, first of all for the children” of same-sex couples, said Yuri Guaiana of the LGBT organization Certi Diritti and a board member of the International Lesbian and Gay Organization’s European chapter. “It goes against a lot of ECHR rulings, so we’re very positive on the chances of winning. It creates an institution that’s exclusively for same-sex couples and ... we view it as a segregationist law.”

But this challenge may be tricky, said Alexander Schuster, the lawyer who represented the same-sex couples in the ECHR suit decided in July. While the court has argued that same-sex couples have a right to legal status, it has repeatedly said states are not obligated to establish marriage equality. It has also held that states can restrict adoption only to married couples. Adoption suits that have succeeded in the ECHR have been when states give same-sex and opposite-sex couples in the same status different adoption rights, such as allowing opposite-sex couples in civil unions to adopt but barring same-sex couples in the same kind of civil union from doing so.

Schuster said there is a case already making its way through the Italian courts that could set up this kind of challenge. Italian courts have granted adoptions outside of married couples in a narrow set of circumstances, and some courts in Rome have extended that logic to apply to same-sex couples. If those precedents get undone by the country’s top courts — and a case recently decided by an appeals court could be appealed — this could go to the ECHR.

He thought the court would be leery of the political fallout of pushing existing precedent on LGBT rights despite expansive rhetoric found in some opinions.

“I think most European institutions are becoming very cautious,” he said.

But Puppinck of the European Center of Law and Justice said that he believed the ECHR was pushing an ambitious two-step strategy in its LGBT rulings: to first require all 47 states on the Council of Europe to at least provide civil unions for same-sex couples, and then “to suppress all the differences between marriage and civil partnerships.”

The Italian vote is a sign that even in Western Europe many still reject the idea that children should be raised by same-sex couples, Puppinck said.

“What really we want on this issue … [is that] we do not want the children to be the tools of the desires of the parents,” he said. “This is the ultimate [red] line.”

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