Portugal's High Court Keeps Gay Marriage Ban

Portugal's Constitutional Court on Friday upheld the country's ban on gay marriage, rejecting a challenge by two lesbians who are seeking to wed.

The court said its five judges ruled 3-2 against an appeal lodged by the women two years ago.

Teresa Pires and Helena Paixao, divorced mothers in their 30s who have been together as a couple since 2003, were turned away by a Lisbon registry office when they attempted to marry in 2006 because the law stipulates that marriage is between people of different genders.

Portugal's constitution, however, also forbids discrimination
based on sexual orientation. The women took the case to a Lisbon
court, which rejected their unprecedented challenge.

After considering their appeal against that decision, the
Constitutional Court said in a statement posted on its Web site
that the constitution does not state that same-sex marriages must
be permitted.

The court said the question before it was not whether the
constitution allows same-sex marriages, but whether the
constitution compels them to be accepted, which it does not.

Paixao told The Associated Press by telephone she regarded the
decision as "a victory" because the split decision demonstrated
that attitudes are changing in Portugal.

"It shows there's a change coming. Bit by bit people will come
around" and accept gay marriage, she said.

In the meantime, the two intend to take their legal battle to
the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, she said.

Gay marriage is permitted in five European countries - Belgium,
the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Norway.

In Portugal, which is an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country,
efforts to introduce gay marriage have hit resistance from
religious groups and conservative lawmakers.

However, the center-left Socialist Party has included a proposal
to permit same-sex marriages in its manifesto for September's
general election. Its chief rival, the center-right Social
Democratic Party, opposes the measure. Opinion polls show the two
parties are neck-and-neck in voting intentions.

Last year, Portugal's Parliament voted by a large majority
against proposals tabled by smaller parties to allow same-sex
marriages. The Socialists said at the time the issue needed a
fuller debate.

The Socialist Party overcame strong opposition from the Catholic
church to legalize abortion two years ago, saying it was part of
the Portugal's process of modernization.

The Portuguese delegation of the International Lesbian and Gay
Association, which has supported the women's challenge, called on
Parliament to resolve the dispute.

Politicians must "fight discrimination and defend the
fundamental right of equality," it said in a statement.

Five years ago, Portugal extended some legal benefits - such as
joint tax returns - to people who live together, including gays.
However, the concessions fell far short of the entitlements gained
by marriage.

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