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Lingering Hostilities: How The Netherlands Never Really Stopped Talking About Same-Sex Marriage

They looked like the countless to-be-married couples that had come before them, dressed in somber bowties and tuxedos, kitsch leather suspenders, and even flowery, white wedding gowns – the conventional kind, complete with ornate and flowing trains. As the clock struck midnight in Amsterdam’s City Hall, the four couples each obligingly affirmed: “I do.” If the question posed to them by the mayor of Amsterdam was unusually verbose (“Will you convert your partnership into a marriage and do you swear to fulfill all duties with which the law endows marriage?”) nobody noticed; and, aside from the endless stream of allusive remarks reminding onlookers that history was being made, the ceremony itself was unabashedly traditional. Vows were read, kisses were exchanged, cheeks were dabbed with ordinary handkerchiefs, and, with the law indisputably on their side, the four couples were married at last.

They were, incidentally, each of the same sex.

At the stroke of midnight on April 1, 2001, The Netherlands became the first country in the world to extend the full rights of marriage to gay and lesbian couples. “And now we have the marriage of two men and two women,” Mayor Job Cohen proudly proclaimed at the end of the ceremony, which claimed its setting in an austere conference hall brimming with pink roses, pink champagne, and even a pink, three-tiered wedding cake. (On Monday, it would resume its original role as the sedate assembly hall of Amsterdam’s City Council.)

“You are writing history,” Cohen told the four couples, one of which had shared a home together for over thirty-five years. “This is the first civil marriage to be celebrated between two men and two women. This is unique to the world.”

The couples kissed, with the full blend of ebullience tempered with cautious apprehension that one would expect from any newlywed couple, as scores of onlookers burst into applause and throngs of paparazzi swarmed to capture their images. (Their wedding was broadcasted live in The Netherlands and segments of the ceremony would be repeated on television screens around the world for weeks and months to come.) Outside City Hall, a protest that would presage the curious vitality of the resistance to come – seven lonely protestors, dressed in sober black and grey, clutching placards that read: “Come, let us return to the Lord.”

Marriage Should Be Open to All

The midnight wedding culminated a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s that saw unprecedented advancements for gay rights in The Netherlands, including the institution of registered partnerships in 1998 (following the lead of Denmark, Norway, Hungary, Sweden, and Iceland), which conferred many of the same benefits as marriage, and adoption rights for same-sex couples two years later. In 2000, a poll cited by the BBC indicated that 62 percent of the Dutch population had no objections to same-sex marriage. By 2006, five years after the first same-sex marriages were conducted in The Netherlands, an astounding 82 percent of the Dutch population approved of same-sex marriages – by far the highest of any country in the world.

Dutch support for the rights of gays and lesbians can be traced back to the founding of COC Nederland in 1946, just two years after the retreat of the virulently homophobic Nazi regime from The Netherlands.  COC Nederland is the oldest gay and lesbian rights organization in the world. In 1995, at the recommendation of several influential special interest groups, including COC Nederland, the Dutch Parliament created a special commission to investigate the possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage. The commission reported its findings to the Parliament two years later and its conclusion was unequivocal: marriage should be open to all.

The landmark bill that legalized same-sex marriage in The Netherlands was introduced by the Lower House of Parliament in the fall of 2000. It faced its sole political opposition from the Christian Democratic Appeal, a party that at the time was not a part of the governing coalition. On December 19, 2000, the bill was approved by the Upper House of Parliament by a three-to-one margin and a single sentence was added to the existing marriage law in The Netherlands: “Een huwelijk kan worden aangegaan door twee personen van verschillend of van gelijk geslacht” (Translated: “A marriage can be contracted by two people of different or the same sex.”).

“We don’t have same-sex marriage in The Netherlands,” clarified Rene van Soeren, the policy and communications advisor for COC Nederland. “We only have civil marriage, which happens to be open to all partners regardless of their sexual orientation. A same-sex couple has the same marriage rights and the same legal rights as a heterosexual couple.”

“This is something foreigners cannot understand,” Van Soeren added. 

A Foreboding Union

The distinction to which Von Soeren refers may seem immaterially semantic, but its deeper significance cannot be ignored. It is true that for some, the debate that ensued in Holland some six years after the institutionalization of same-sex marriage (that is, a system of marriage open to same-sex couples) was little more than a dispute over words. But for others, including Van Soeren, the debate underscores the reality of the lingering hostilities between the secular left-wingers that have come to dominate the Dutch political landscape and religious fundamentalists of every stripe. Khalil el-Moumni, a Moroccan imam based in Rotterdam, caused a furor in June 2001 when he stated in a sermon published in Arabic: “The western civilization is a civilization without morals. In the Netherlands it’s permitted for homosexuals to marry each other. The Europeans stand lower than dogs and pigs.”

The ascendancy of secular political powers in the 1990s paved the way for much of the social liberalization that would sweep over The Netherlands, including the legalization of prostitution, marijuana, and same-sex marriage. After the dominant Labour Party and the second-in-command Christian Democrats failed to gain enough collective votes to form a majority coalition in the 2006 elections (the two parties won 74 of the requisite 76 seats), the two parties agreed to enroll the socially conservative Christian Union party to form a three-party governing coalition.   Drawn to the Christian Union’s staunch support for left-wing economic policies, the Labour Party helped to pave the way for the two major Christian parties of The Netherlands to gain partial control of the Parliament.

Although both the Christian Democrats and the Christian Union opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage in The Netherlands in 2001, they had nothing to gain by proposing to revoke the widely popular legislation by the time they entered power in 2006. Only a small minority of the Dutch population, after all, actually opposed same-sex marriage. Absent the hope of reversing the tide of public opinion, the Christian Democrats and the Christian Union responded to the issue by attempting to insulate their constituents from a reality that they morally despised.

‘On Grounds of Conscience’

The unexpected formation of a Christian cabinet triggered general alarm among Dutch liberals about a potential regression to the social conservatism that dominated The Netherlands until the 1970s. The alarm, as it turned out, was not entirely unjustified; since the instalment of the Christian cabinet, tobacco smoking has been banned in indoor cafes, attempts have been made to circumvent prostitution in Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District, and the debate about abortion has suddenly re-emerged. While none of these developments can be directly attributed to the Christian cabinet alone, the very instalment of a Christian cabinet in the Parliament has challenged the conventional image of The Netherlands as a country at the global forefront of social progressivism.

In line with broader left-wing concerns about an impending sobering up of Dutch society, progressive parties (and gay special interest groups, in particular) became especially sensitive to any concessions on the issue of gay and lesbian rights. Boris van der Ham, a prominent socially progressive member of the Parliament, said he “pricked his ears” for any potential compromise on marriage rights for same-sex couples. He became one of the forerunners in a political and public debate that, as it turned out, even came with its own catchphrase: weigerambtenaren (literally, refusing civil servants).

The issue at hand was a single passage in the coalition agreement between the three governing parties that would allow civil servants (the arbiters of civil marriage in The Netherlands) to refuse to ordain a marriage between a same-sex couple, while also setting the condition that someone else within the same municipality be available to conduct the ceremony:

In accordance with the policy laid down at the time, fair treatment of registrars of births, deaths and marriages who object to performing same-sex marriages means that, following consultation, another registrar will take their place in conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies, provided such marriages remain possible in every municipality. If problems arise in practice, measures will be taken to safeguard the legal certainty of registrars who object on grounds of conscience.

Take a step back. Suddenly, “same-sex marriage” – a term that Van Soeren took such care to qualify as absolutely identical to any other form of civil marriage – has taken on a life of its own.

Let the war of semantics begin.

The Opening of Pandora’s Box

It is striking that the text mentions only the need to protect civil servants and “safeguard” their “fair treatment.” Compare this empathy to the empathy shown towards same-sex couples, which are practically invisible in the paragraph, save some vague, dismissive reference to “such marriages.” The emphasis in a previous version of the policy was placed upon the need for all same-sex marriages to be accommodated, rather than the need for the civil servant’s conscience to be taken into consideration.

The shift appears to stem from the Christian Union’s adamant insistence upon insulating its religious electorate from the foreign, hostile entity of same-sex marriage. The text, of course, does not specify the grounds for objecting to same-sex marriage beyond the word “conscience.” Any conscience-related rationale, religiously based or otherwise, is given precedence over gay equality.

And what “measures,” exactly, will be taken to protect the “legal certainty of registrars”? What are these legal certainties, anyway? The linguistic ambiguity provided an opening for the Christian coalition, without actually changing the letter of the law, to change the spirit of the law by allowing civil servants to refuse to marry same-sex couples on a case-by-case basis.

In response to the brazen distinction made between “same-sex marriage” and other forms of civil marriage, COC Nederland began to lobby all municipalities within The Netherlands to introduce motions that would ensure that the local district would no longer hire civil servants who would refuse to marry a same-sex couple. (Out of the 443 municipalities in The Netherlands, only 243 have passed such legislation.) While weigerambtenaren could have previously worked out arrangements with their local municipalities privately, COC Nederland’s forceful response effectively politicized a passage that might have otherwise gone under the public radar.

‘Letter of the Law’ versus ‘Spirit of the Law’

“It shouldn’t be an issue,” says Berend van Bemmel, a resident of Amsterdam and a member of the Labour Party. “There has always been an option for civil servants to arrange among themselves who should perform which marriage. If a civil servant had an objection to a couple of any kind for any reason, practically speaking, another civil servant could easily perform the function of conducting a marriage. Live and let live.”

Of course, practically speaking is one thing. Legislatively speaking, however, is quite another.

“A civil servant simply should not have the legal right to choose what kind of marriage he wants to preside over,” MP Van der Ham said, “He is bound to the law, and the law says that there is no distinction between a same-sex marriage and any other civil marriage. They are all the same. Civil servants who refuse to follow the law should do other things.” Van Soeren adds, “If Christian parties are so offended by the idea of same-sex marriage, they should change the law. They shouldn’t use civil servants as proxies for changing the law.”

According to Van Bemmel, the debate may just come down to a fundamental conflict between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

“No law should ever be taken to the extreme,” Van Bemmel said. “In every law, there is always an exception, and it is a fact that, whether you like it or not, there are still some people who disagree with same-sex marriage. I’m not one of them, of course. But in The Netherlands, you have the ‘live and let live’ principle, and I don’t think it’s smart to impose your beliefs on people that don’t share it when, by not doing so, you are not doing anything to harm your own cause.”

He added: “And, you might even be helping it.”

‘What is the big deal?’

The Christian Union’s defense of the passage is atypically grounded in a realist, pragmatic outlook. In arguing that left-wing consternation over the issue is unfounded, the Christian Union points to the fact that the passage in question barely puts a dent in the status quo.

“Let’s not make things bigger than they are,” writes Henk van Rhee, director of the Christian Union party, “everybody the law allows to marry can still do so wherever and whenever. The Christian Union wants to keep it that way. There are not enough civil servants to pose a threat to the possibility of getting married. Instead of forcing people to act against their beliefs, our practical, a-dogmatic approach avoids any coercion.” Nobody gets hurt. And as long as same-sex couples can still get married and a small percentage of conscientious religious civil servants (who would not be the most desirable masters of ceremony anyway) can arrange to avoid these couples, what is the big deal?

Conscientious objections have been officially recognized in marriage cases ever since the institution of same-sex marriage. Even the national Equal Treatment Committee originally ruled in favor of the religious civil servant’s so-called “right to refuse.” According to the Christian Union, objections on moral grounds have long been acknowledged in both national and international treaties as a legitimate exception to the law.

So what, exactly, is the big deal?

Where Hostilities Collide

Every last Sunday of the month, the imposing Keizersgrachtkerk Cathedral, a bonafide Amsterdam monument, opens its doors to the Evangelical Pink Celebrations. It is a place where Christianity is practiced by homosexuals.  At the entrance of the church, three pink-collared men greet visitors with outstretched hands. The warm and welcoming atmosphere of the congregation does not only seem to spring from the eagerness to spread the Gospel, but rather from the Celebrations’ intent to reach out to those whose sexuality may otherwise cause them to feel excluded from other churches.

“This congregation offers homosexual people an accepting environment that can supplement or even replace their religious homes,” minister Ruud Stiemer says. “For some members, the Evangelical Pink Celebrations has become a spiritual family.”

Politics are an unfamiliar subject here (The topic of weigerambtenaren barely raises an eyebrow.). The focus, instead, is entirely on inclusivity. As members of the organization hand out the liturgy, hearty kisses and embraces are exchanged among the churchgoers – between attendees of the same sex and opposite sex alike. Is there a fundamental obstacle to the peaceful coexistence of Evangelical Christians and homosexuals? No, they say; after all, they are all just human.

“The beach is a great place to meet people,” Frans Polman said, a winking reference to where he met his partner, August Zinn.

Polman, 64, and Zinn, 72 are just one of many gay couples that attend the Evangelical Pink Celebrations. Staying afterwards to socialize is something of a ritual for them. Only Polman is religious (Zinn just comes for the company) and neither is interested in marriage. Only Zinn has experience anything of the sort, in the form of a registered partnership (in his “misspent youth” as a heterosexual, no less).  Nonetheless, they both agreed that allowing same-sex marriage is a “good thing” – with all the enthusiasm of Hillary Clinton endorsing Barack Obama for President.

They joke about their age difference (and their age in general) as a reason for not walking down the aisle, but the truth seems to be that they are simply comfortable with their relationship as it is now. Neither rushed to wed in 2001 when the Netherlands allowed same-sex marriages for the first time and both seemed unaware of the fact that civil servants were not allowed to refuse marriage to same-sex couples to begin with.

“I think most of the civil servants that refuse to marry homosexuals are those who come from a very strict religious background,” Polman said. “However, one can’t fault them for it if they are following their conscience.”

Did they care that, should they choose to get married, a civil servant could refuse to marry them?

“It’s not a good thing, especially since they work for the government,” Polman said. “But if it’s against their own principles, then they should be allowed to refuse.” After all, Zinn pointed out, discrimination is discrimination—and wasn’t forcing someone, government employee or not, to conduct a ceremony in the spirit of a law that violated their moral or religious beliefs also a type of discrimination?

Discrimination Against Discrimination

“If a black person is racially insulted, then I am offended, even though I am not black,” Van Soeren said. “I want to live in a society where there is solidarity, where you don’t have to have a certain color skin to feel for others.”

The problem is, of course, that one amounts to discrimination against a legal institution and the other to discrimination against discrimination. Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement in the United States fought and won against the claim that separate could possibly be equal. In the struggle to see the practical in lieu of the principle, one would miss the forest for the trees. With popular support for same-sex marriage in the Netherlands getting higher and higher, it can only be said that any progression backwards – however small – is in the wrong direction.

“Civil servants who refuse to marry same-sex partners do not just offend gays and lesbians,” Van Soeren adds. “They offend straight people who do not want their marriage to be used as a symbol of a religious ideal that they do not even believe in. Every time a straight couple is married by such a civil servant, there is an implicit statement, ‘I’m marrying you because you are straight, but I would not marry your gay friend or your gay family member because being gay is wrong.’ It’s a signal that they give to the entire community.”

“And if there is solidarity within the community,” he continued, “then discrimination should affect anyone. Discrimination against gay people should offend everyone.”


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Interview with Berend van Bemmel, a resident of Amsterdam.
Interview with Boris van der Ham, a member of Parliament, D66.
Interview with Erik van Dijk, policy officer and advisor of the Christian Union.
Interview with Frans Polman and August Zinn, two attendees of the Evangelical Pink Celebrations.
Interview with Rene van Soeren, press officer of COC Amsterdam.
Life Site News, “EU Says Gay ‘Marriage’ Rights Should Override Clergy.” 13  January 2006. <http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2006/jan/06011309.html>.
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Times Online, “Victory for Christian registrar who refused to carry out gay ‘weddings.’” 11 July 2008. <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article4312447.ece>.
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Netherlands Netherlands 2008


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