The Constitutional Court of the Republic of China (Taiwan) voted overwhelmingly that same-sex couples are entitled to marry, and that anti-gay discrimination violates the Republic’s Constitution. The May 24 ruling was greeted with relative equanimity by legislative leaders, who were ordered by the court to approve legislation to implement this decision by May 24, 2019. Otherwise, the court said, the decision would go into effect automatically, and same-sex couples would be entitled to marry. Only two justices dissented, and one abstained. Press reports we saw differed as to whether the court has 14 or 15 members. Either way, the majority was overwhelming.
This was the first ruling by an Asian high court to accept marriage equality as a constitutional right, although there might be political and ideological arguments about its significance in relation to the rest of Asia due to the unusual status of Taiwan, which the Peoples’ Republic of China (Mainland China) considers to be part of its country that is just temporarily self-governing and most countries do not recognize it as an independent nation. However, there is no disputing that when this ruling goes into effect, Taiwan will be the first place where same-sex marriages can be performed in Asia with the imprimatur of legally-recognized status.
The opinion, formally called Interpretation No. 748, was released only in Chinese, but the court simultaneously issued an English-language press release summarizing the ruling in detail.
The court was responding to petitions from LGBT rights activist Chia-Wei Chi and the Taipei City Government, seeking a definitive ruling on whether the freedom to marry, protected by Article 22 of the Constitution, was limited by the provisions of Chapter 2 on Marriage of Part IV on Family of the Civil Code, which defines marriage as exclusively a different-sex institution. The court also had to confront the question whether excluding same-sex couples from marriage violated the “people’s right to equality” guaranteed in Article 7 of the constitution.
The court found that both constitutional guarantees – the right to marry and the right to equality – were violated by the ban on same-sex marriage.
The court observed that the petitioner, Chia-Wei Chi, has been waging a campaign for same-sex marriage for more than thirty years. Although some progress had been made in getting the legislature to consider the issue, after more than ten years of bills being introduced and debated, nothing has been brought to a vote. The court expressed concern about the frustration induced by this protracted legislative process. “The representative body is to enact or revise the relevant laws in due time,” said the court. “Nevertheless, the timetable for such legislative solution is hardly predictable now and yet these petitions involve the protection of people’s fundamental rights. It is the constitutional duty of this Court to render a binding judicial decision, in time, on issues concerning the safeguarding of constitutional basic values such as the protection of peoples’ constitutional rights and the free democratic constitutional order.”
The court said that the freedom to marry extends both to deciding whether to marry and whom to marry. “Such decisional autonomy is vital to the sound development of personality and safeguarding of human dignity, and therefore is a fundamental right.” The court insisted that allowing same-sex couples to marry “will not affect the application of the Marriage Chapter to the union of two persons of the opposite sex” and that it would not “alter the social order established upon the existing opposite-sex marriage.” The court said that the failure of current law to allow same-sex couples to marry “is obviously a gross legislative flaw” and that the current provisions “are incompatible with the spirit and meaning of the freedom of marriage as protected by Article 22 of the Constitution.”
Moving to the equality issue, the court addressed the problem that Article 7, unlike the United States’ equal protection clause, explicitly requires equality “irrespective of sex, religion, class, or party affiliation,” but the court did not see this list as a barrier to protecting equality for gay people (or, it added, people with disabilities). They said that the classifications listed in Article 7 “are only exemplified, neither enumerated nor exhausted.” In other words, this is a list of “including but not limited to” classifications, and the court saw sexual orientation as a classification governed by the same equality principle.
“Sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic that is resistant to change,” wrote the court. “The contributing factors to sexual orientation may include physical and psychological elements, living experience, and the social environment. Major medical associations have stated that homosexuality is not a disease. In our country, homosexuals were once denied by social tradition and custom in the past. As a result, they have long been locked in the closet and suffered various forms of de facto or de jure exclusion or discrimination. Besides, homosexuals, because of the demographic structure, have been a discrete and insular minority in the society. Impacted by stereotypes, they have been among those lacking political power for a long time, unable to overturn their legally disadvantaged status through ordinary democratic process. Accordingly, in determining the constitutionality of different treatment based on sexual orientation, a heightened standard shall be applied.” This appears to be the equivalent of the U.S. legal concept of a “suspect classification,” one deemed illegitimate in the absence of good justification.
The court rejected any idea that reproductive capacity has anything to do with the freedom to marry, pointing out that different-sex couples may marry even if they are incapable of procreation or unwilling to engage in procreative activities. “Disallowing two persons of the same sex to marry, for the sake of their inability to reproduce, is a different treatment having no apparent rational basis,” wrote the court. It also rejected the kind of moralistic arguments that are raised by marriage equality opponents, concluding, “Disallowing two persons of the same sex to marry, for the sake of safeguarding basic ethical orders, is a different treatment, also obviously having no rational basis. Such different treatment is incompatible with the spirit and meaning of the right to equality as protected by Article 7 of the Constitution.”
While the court gave the government two years to make the necessary legislative adjustments to carry out this ruling, it warned that failure to do so would not prevent the decision from going into effect. Upon the two-year anniversary, if not sooner, same-sex couples will be entitled to apply for marriage registration to the usual authorities and to “be accorded the status of a legally recognized couple, and then enjoy the rights and bear the obligations arising on couples.”
Without being able to read and understand the original Chinese text, it is hard to assess whether the ruling leaves much leeway to the legislature to consider alternatives to true marriage equality. In Europe, for example, the Court of Human Rights has been willing to allow countries to adopt registered partnerships or civil unions rather than extending explicit marriage rights to same-sex couples, although that is likely to change as the number of countries having voluntarily legislated for marriage equality has grown to encompass several of the largest countries who are parties to the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the clear import of the English summary is that same-sex marriages would have to include all the usual legal rights accompanying opposite-sex marriages to meet the equality test the court embraced, in a more explicit way than the U.S. Supreme Court did in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.
The local English-language press in Taiwan reported that none of the major parties responded with opposition to the ruling, which was quickly embraced by Premier Lin Chuan, who “ordered Chen Mei-ling, secretary-general of the Executive Yuan, to coordinate the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior and other branches to draft the revision proposal,” according to Cabinet spokesman Hsu Kuo-yung. The cabinet will approve a proposal to submit to the legislature. The two options that seem available are a bill amending existing laws to accommodate same-sex marriages, or a separate same-sex marriage bill. In terms of timing, it seems possible that marriage equality will go into effect sooner than two years. Although the current legislative session ends by May 31, the legislature will reconvene for some special sessions during July and August and will resume its regular session thereafter.