Is Same-Sex Marriage Coming To The Czech Republic?

Same-sex marriage is legal throughout Western Europe, but has not yet arrived in post-communist Central or Eastern Europe. After a flurry of activity in 2018, moves towards the legalisation of same-sex marriage have stalled in the Czech Republic, but activists say that change is coming sooner or later. Photo credit: stock photo / Freepik.

Brno, Nov 22 (BD) – Speculation was rife in the international media during 2018 that the Czech Republic would become the first post-communist country in the former Eastern Bloc, and the first Slavic nation, to legalise marriage for same-sex couples. On June 12th, 2018, 46 deputies co-signed a bill to extend marriage rights to couples regardless of their gender, a move supported by Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his government. After some delays, the bill had its first reading on November 14th, but since then the bill’s progress has stalled, with a succession of votes postponed, and finally cancelled with no new date announced.

As in every country that has debated same-sex marriage, opposition has been robust, led by the opposition Christian Democrat Party (KDU-CSL) and its leader, Marek Vyborny. Three days after the same-sex marriage bill was introduced to parliament, a rival bill was introduced, supported by 37 deputies, that would amend the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a part of the constitution, to define marriage as between a man and a woman. This tactic has been used in many countries by opponents of same-sex marriage, as it creates a much bigger obstacle to ordinary legislation. In April, Vyborny commented that “marriage is a union of man and woman. It has been proven for centuries and deserves protection of the law. If two sisters decide to live together and care for their grandfather, should they also have the right to marry?”

The supporters of the rival bills were in some cases from the same parties, indicating that any vote that is eventually held will come down to a conscience vote, without parties instructing their parliamentarians how to vote. In this case, it is unclear whether the bill would pass, as the most recent survey of legislators’ positions on the issue found only 82 ready to support legalisation, with many undecided. So why did the bill stall? And what happens next?

Leading the campaign towards legalisation is the group Jsme Fer [“We Are Fair”], formed before the 2017 legislative elections with a goal of legalising same-sex marriage in the Czech Republic within four years. According to Filip Milde, a spokesman for the group, the bill’s progress was slowed by more opposition than its supporters expected, which allowed opposing MPs to talk the bill out of time, a process known as a filibuster. The fact that all parties except the Pirate Party (which supports the bill) were allowing their MPs a free vote also slowed the process, as did the simultaneous discussion of the two bills. In the end, the process became so prolonged that it lost its place in the schedule of government business. 

The bill also came up against some very heated criticism from conservative parliamentarians. Although the Czech Republic is famously less religious than neighbouring Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, Milde said that the same arguments can be repackaged to appeal to social conservatives in the local context, often without the appeal to religion: “The parties are using the same arguments as in other countries in the region like Poland and Hungary, arguments about threats to the traditional family and the institution of marriage. We have also experienced negative hate speech from MPs and leaders in the church, who are using scare tactics to slow the process.”

Despite the setbacks, Jsme Fer believe that the bill is not yet dead, and may even come back during this parliament. The organisation has been organising public events every three months since the anniversary of the introduction of the bill on June 12th. The next such event is planned for December 12th, when supporters will send postcards to their representatives urging them to lend their support to same-sex marraige. According to Milde, the four-year goal is still seen as likely to be achieved.

There are some other important factors at play: one is public opinion, which has been shifting steadily in favour of same-sex marriage over the last 15 years; in 2007, 36% of Czechs agreed that same-sex marriage should be legalised, while one poll in 2018 found as many as 75% of Czechs agreeing. However, the figure fluctuates from poll to poll, and with different survey companies. According to Milde, a more reliable recent figure used by Jsme Fer is around 61%. When many politicians are undecided on the issue but always keen to be seen as in line with public opinion, growing support among the public could prove decisive – Jsme Fer has already met with several MPs who have changed their minds and are newly converted to supporting the bill.

The other unknown factor is President Milos Zeman, who in January stated that he would consider vetoing the bill if it passed. While this veto can be overturned by parliament, it would clearly be an extra hurdle, though Milde points to Zeman’s previous support for same-sex adoption as evidence that his position is not necessarily fixed. Furthermore, Czech tabloid Blesk recently reported that his daughter Katerina is calling for him to drop his opposition to same-sex marriage. 

The situation for LGBT people in the Czech Republic has been steadily improving in recent years, and the country, especially Prague, has a growing reputation as a safe city for LGBT nightlife and culture, at odds with the traditional stereotypes of Central and Eastern European countries. Increased visibility in society has been a huge boost to campaigns for equal rights for LGBT people in countries around the world, and according to Milde, the same call for basic equality is at the heart of the debate in the Czech Republic too: “People against equal marriage say that we are claiming something extra, which doesn’t belong to us. We just want to remind people that we don’t want anything more, just to have the same quality of life that other people have.”       

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