A Marriage blessed by the People

If it were up to the Swiss parliament or the Swiss government alone, same sex couples would be allowed to marry in Switzerland. But it is the people who will have the last word. This coming 26th of September, we are called to exercise direct democracy, again. The reason we’re voting on this question is because a referendum against the parliament’s draft bill legalising same sex marriage was launched. Most laws passed by parliament come into force without the People voting on them. And therefore they go largely unnoticed. In Switzerland, any citizen who has the right to vote, including Swiss abroad, can launch a popular referendum. If the authors of the referendum collect the required 50,000 valid signatures, the bill must be put to the vote of the people.

The same sex bill aims to correct inequalities

Today in Switzerland two women or two men can only enter into a registered civil partnership. While this legal partnership is much like marriage in most rights, it discriminates in others. The proposed bill will allow same sex couples to adopt a child together, and if one of the partners is foreign, he or she will benefit from a shorter and less expensive naturalisation process, as is the case for married couples. And, lesbian couples will have access to sperm donations, as is the case for women in heterosexual marriages. The proposed bill puts an end to long-standing inequalities. 

Legislating by decree or through public debate?

I almost feel grateful to the referendum committee. A decision made by the people has more democratic weight. Persuasion is superior to enforcement. Even if the persuading can be painfully slow; recall that women in Switzerland were granted the right to vote only in 1971. There is a trade-off between democracy and efficiency. The public debate spurred by the referendum has been important and healthy. And deliberation helps us continually form our Swiss identity. Witnessing the Zurich Pride event confirmed that this country is diverse, plural, tolerant. The idea of family has evolved, and so must the law.

I read in the PEW Research Center that same sex marriage is legal in 30 countries. Going through the list of countries, I see that in the large majority the legality was handed down  from a high court, a “royal assent” or an executive decision. From the PEW’s account, it appears that only Finland and (Catholic-majority) Ireland legalized same-sex marriage through popular referendums. In both cases the referendum was launched in favour of same sex marriage, not against it. The intention of the initiators of the Swiss referendum was to stop same sex marriage. Today, as I see my 87-year old mother-in-law cast her vote in favour of her granddaughter’s right to marry her girlfriend, I am grateful to the committee for deferring the question to the People. The same-sex marriage law is a marriage secured through votes.  Provided, of course, the last word is Yes.

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