Recognition of same-sex unions in Croatia
Croatia recognizes life partnerships (Croatian: životno partnerstvo) for same-sex couples through the Life Partnership Act, making same-sex couples equal to married couples in everything except adoption. However, the Act does provide couples with an institution similar to stepchild adoption called partner-guardianship. The Act also recognizes and defines unregistered same-sex relationships as informal life partners, thus making them equal to registered life partnerships after they have been cohabiting for a minimum of 3 years. Croatia first recognized same-sex couples in 2003 through a law on unregistered same-sex unions which was replaced by the Life Partnership Act. The Croatian Parliament passed the new law on 15 July 2014, taking effect in two stages (5 August 2014 and 1 September 2014). Since the 2013 referendum, the Constitution of Croatia has limited marriage to opposite-sex couples.
In 2003, one year after the first gay pride in Croatia, the then ruling coalition consisted of mostly centre-left parties, managed to agree and passed a law on same-sex unions. Initially, the law that would recognize registered partnerships with most of the rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples was planned, but the right-wing Croatian Peasant Party that was the only right-wing party of the coalition threatened to leave the Government should they insist on this law, so the compromise had to be reached in order to save the Government. The law granted same-sex partners who have been cohabiting for at least 3 years similar rights as enjoyed by unmarried cohabiting opposite-sex partners in terms of inheritance and financial support, but not right to adopt or any other right included in family law as this law was not part of it, but rather a separate law had been created. Registering those relationship was not allowed nor had they included rights in terms of tax, joint properties, health insurance, pensions etc.
In early 2005, the Croatian Parliament rejected a registered partnership bill proposed by Šime Lučin (SDP) and Independent Ivo Banac. MP Lucija Čikeš, a member of the then ruling HDZ, called for the proposal to be dropped because "all universe is heterosexual, from an atom and the smallest particle, from a fly to an elephant". Another HDZ MP objected on grounds that "85% of the population considers itself Catholic and the Church is against heterosexual and homosexual equality". Medical profession, physical profession, and media did not support these statements, warning that all the members of Parliament have a duty to vote according to the Constitution, which bans discrimination.
Life Partnership Act
On 11 May 2012, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović announced further expansion of rights for same-sex couples. At this point, it was not known which of the well-known terms such as civil union or registered partnership would be used, but it was certain that Croatian family law would not be modified for this purpose, but rather a new law dealing with this issue would be introduced, thus implying that the term marriage will not be used.
On the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in 2012, LGBT rights groups met Minister of Administration Arsen Bauk who announced further changes in existing laws that would expand LGBT rights, plus a new law regulating same-sex partnerships. The name of the law at this point was still unknown, but one of the proposed ones was the Life Partnership Act. Minister Bauk also said that he strongly believes in equality, and that no politician should make compromises about it, referring to several statements of politicians who support full equality, but are willing to make concessions because society might not be ready for certain changes. Marko Jurčić from Zagreb Pride said that they dislike the idea of this partnership to be called "same-sex" and prefer the term "life partnership", open to all genders, but that was rejected. Zagreb Pride, however, remained a strong supporter of the Life Partnership Act, co-drafting the bill within the Government's working group and led the campaign called "It's time for the life partnerships".
The Ministry of Administration and the working group responsible for creating the law met for the first time on 6 September 2012, with expectations for the law to be presented before the Croatian Parliament sometime in 2013. On 16 November 2012, president of the working group Jagoda Botički confirmed that same-sex couples would be able to register their relationships at register offices, same as heterosexual couples, but the law would not include heterosexual couples. She said that the group was in the process of creating a list of rights with the help of several government ministries. LGBT associations Iskorak and Kontra, expressed their satisfaction with the fact that registration at register offices will be possible, but at the same time expressed disappointment with same-sex couples being excluded from the family law, thus making it possible for the law to include fewer rights than expected as a result of political trade and concessions. This would especially affect same-sex families with children, as it is the most controversial area for the opponents of the law.
On 2 August 2013, Minister of Administration Arsen Bauk once more confirmed that the name of the law will be the Life Partnership Act, that registration of life partnerships would be identical to marriage, and that the law should make same-sex couples equal to married couples, apart from adoption. However, he did say that stepchild adoption is being considered. HNS MPs supported full adoption. Public debate about the law was announced for September that year, and the introduction of the law before the Parliament by the end of it.
On 4 November 2013, the first draft of the law was published. The draft made life partners equal to married couples in all areas apart from adoption. However, a parent's life partner may attain partial, in some cases full, parental responsibility over the child. The Act also enables a parent's life partner to become a partner-guardian. Partner-guardianship is equal to stepchild adoption, although it does not provide parental status over the parent's life partner. Even though this draft was not part of Croatian family law, it referred to it, and defined same-sex couples as family. The draft also banned any present and future discrimination, and every future change of the family law regarding marriage must include life partnerships as well.
[The Life Partnership Act] represents a democratic compromise, and creates conditions which will make all apparatuses needed to build a family life based on feelings of intimate emotional attachment and mutual trust available to same-sex communities, while at the same time expressing respect towards the current attachment of our fellow citizens to the traditional notion of marriage.
On 12 December 2013, the Government passed the proposed bill. On 29 January 2014, the Parliamentary Committee on Human and National Minority Rights accepted the Life Partnership Act, with 6 members for and 2 against (who were also members of HDZ). 5 days before this decision, the Gender Equality Committee also accepted the law. The decision was unanimous, but members of HDZ were absent. The pattern was followed by every other parliamentary committee that had to accept the bill. The bill was introduced before Parliament on 27 February 2014, and during the public debate suggestions were made on how to improve the law, with some of them being accepted. The Government passed the final proposal on 24 June 2014. The bill passed its second reading on 10 July 2014. Parliament approved the Life Partnership Act in its final reading on 15 July 2014 with 89 votes for and 16 against. It was published in the official gazette on 28 July 2014, and it took effect 8 days later (i.e. 5 August 2014), except for the part on parental responsibility which came into force on 1 September 2014.
In September 2017, the Croatian Government rejected a draft proposal, which would have changed Croatian family law to give couples access to social welfare benefits, because it only included married couples and not life partners. The draft was eventually withdrawn after protest from organisations and activists. Sanja Baric, a professor at the University of Rijeka, told the Balkan Insight that if such a narrow definition of the family had been established in law, a constitutional review would have likely overturned it. She cited multiple European Court of Human Rights rulings which have defined the family as including single people with children, same-sex couples and grandparents with grandchildren, among other types of families. In November 2017, the Ministry of Demographics, Family, Youth and Social Policy included life partners in the draft.
According to Articles 73, 74 and 75 of the Life Partnership Act, same-sex marriages and same-sex partnerships performed abroad are recognized as life partnerships in Croatia (EU and non-EU). This also includes unregistered same-sex relationships where couples have been cohabiting for a minimum of 3 years. They are recognized as informal life partnerships. Furthermore, couples where at least one of the partners is an EU-citizen can enter life partnerships in Croatia, even if their country does not recognize same-sex relationships. Should they decide to move to another EU country that recognizes same-sex partnerships or same-sex marriages, their life partnerships will be recognized according to the legislation of that country, respecting the right of EU citizens and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the member states. Couples where both partners are citizens of a non-EU/EEA country can also enter life partnerships in Croatia. According to law experts this makes the Life Partnership Act as one of the most liberal same-sex partnership acts in Europe.
The first life partnership was registered in Zagreb on 5 September 2014. It was reported that the couple were two men. Minister of Administration Arsen Bauk was also present, and presented the life partners with two neckties as a gift from the Croatian state. The second life partnership took place in Split on 18 September 2014.
In mid-December 2014, released information showed that between 30 and 40 life partnerships had taken place in the country since September 2014. 22 took place in Zagreb, 3 in Rijeka, 2 in Split and 2 in Rovinj and the others occurred in Pazin, Opatija, Koprivnica-Križevci County, etc. In most partnerships, both partners were Croatian citizens, but there were some partnerships where one of the partners was a citizen of another country, such as the United Kingdom, Austria, Slovenia, Japan, Italy, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the time this information was released, no partnership had taken place where both partners were foreign citizens, but one couple who registered their partnership abroad did submit an official request in the city of Karlovac for their partnership to be recognized in Croatia. On 20 February 2015, it was reported that the first life partnership where both partners were foreign citizens took place in Osijek between two Macedonian women. This was the first life partnership in that city and also the 40th in Croatia.
In March 2015, it was reported that 50 life partnerships (27 male and 23 female couples) had taken place between 5 September 2014 and 23 March 2015. 32 in Zagreb (18 male couples and 14 female), 4 in Rijeka (3 female couples and 1 male), 3 in Split (3 male couples), 2 in Rovinj (1 male couple and 1 female), 2 in Kastav (2 male couples), 2 in Osijek (2 female couples), and 1 in each of the following cities: Dubrovnik (male couple), Koprivnica (female couple), Opatija (female couple), Pazin (female couple) and Pula (male couple). 26 were couples where both partners were Croatian citizens, 22 where one of the partners was a foreign citizen and 2 where both partners were foreign citizens.
In May 2015, official reports confirmed that 70 life partnerships had taken place in Croatia, 40 male couples and 30 female couples. 45 life partnerships were performed in Zagreb, 5 in Rijeka, 3 in each of the following places: Kastav, Osijek, Rovinj and Split, and 1 each in Dubrovnik, Koprivnica, Opatija, Pakrac, Pazin, Vukovar, Zadar and Pula. There was also one dissolution of a life partnership in Zagreb. By 15 July 2015, exactly one year after the Parliament passed the law, that number had risen to 80.
According to the Ministry of Administration, 72 life partnerships were celebrated in 2015 alone. 38 of those were male couples and 34 were female couples. 47 of them were conducted in the City of Zagreb, 7 in Primorje-Gorski Kotar County, 4 in each in Osijek-Baranja County, Istria County and Split-Dalmatia County, 2 in Varaždin County, and 1 in each in Dubrovnik-Neretva County, Vukovar-Srijem County, Šibenik-Knin County and Krapina-Zagorje County. In 47 cases, both partners were Croatian citizens, in 22 one partner was a foreign national, and in 3 cases both partners were foreign nationals.
In the first 6 months of 2016, 35 (19 male couples and 16 female couples) life partnerships were conducted, taking the number up to 143 since they were legalized in 2014. There was a surge in the number of couples where both partners were foreign citizens, 14 of them, compared to 3 in the 2014-2015 period. Out of 35 life partnerships in the first 6 months of 2016, 20 were conducted in Zagreb, 3 in Rijeka, 2 in Varaždin, and 1 in each in Ludbreg, Ivanska, Nova Rača, Opatija, Nova Gradiška, Osijek, Poreč, Umag, Rovinj and Buje. On 23 September 2016, it was reported that the first life partnership between prison inmates in Croatia took place. The ceremony was held in the city of Gospić.
On 12 January 2017, it was reported that 66 life partnerships had taken place in 2016, taking the total number to 174 since they were legalized. Of these, 35 were between male couples and 31 were between female couples. 39 life partnerships were conducted in Zagreb, followed by 8 in Istria County, 6 in Primorje-Gorski Kotar County, 3 in Varaždin County, 2 each in Split-Dalmatia County, Osijek-Baranja County and Bjelovar-Bilogora County, and 1 each in Brod-Posavina County, Lika-Senj County, Vukovar-Srijem County and Šibenik-Knin County. The number of life partnerships conducted with one partner as a foreign citizen was 24, and with both partners as foreign citizens was 6.
Many political parties and politicians have expressed their support for same-sex marriage in Croatia. Most notably MPs from the SDP, HNS, HSLS, Green List and the Labour Party as well as Vesna Pusić and Mirela Holy and former Croatian President Ivo Josipović. In May 2013, a conservative civil initiative group "In the name of the family" collected more than 700,000 signatures for a referendum, which would constitutionally define marriage as "a union between a woman and a man". They needed a minimum of 450,000 signatures, representing 10% of registered voters. The Government disapproved of the possible referendum, accusing the Church of being the main force behind the initiative. The Catholic Church had a major role in collecting signatures as many volunteers were based in front of the churches. The Government also said that this referendum question was in fact unconstitutional. The initiative had divided Croatian society, and opened many question that hadn't been considered so far, such as the reform of the law on referendums. According to the current law, turnout is not a condition for a successful referendum, thus enabling a minority of the voters to change the Constitution. Marriage being defined as a union between a woman and a man does not prevent the Government from expanding rights to same-sex couples, and equalizing their relationships with marriage, thus raising questions on the purpose of the referendum. According to a poll that included 1,300 people, 55.3% of them supported this initiative, and 31.1% did not. However, almost 40% decided not to participate in the referendum. Croatian President Ivo Josipović condemned the referendum.
Parliament voted in favour of not presenting the referendum proposal before the Constitutional Court. However, after Parliament had set the date for the referendum, every Croatian citizen had the right to do so. That did happen, and 3 NGOs (Zagreb Pride, Centre For Civil Courage, and CroL) presented the case before the Court. The Constitutional Court did not decide in their favour, stating there is no legal basis for banning the referendum. However, the Court was clear in stating that should the citizens support the definition of a marriage as a union between a woman and a man to be included in the Constitution, that must not have any negative effect on future laws regarding same-sex couples, or non-married opposite-sex couples. Conservative ex-Prime Minister, once a member of right-wing HDZ and now an independent MP, Jadranka Kosor voted in favour of presenting the proposal before the Constitutional Court and voted against the proposed constitutional change. This statement was not in line with her previous views on homosexuality and same-sex marriages. She was known for being against the expansion of rights for same-sex couples in the past, and was voted the "homophobe of the year" in 2010 after stating that homosexuality is not natural, and that same-sex marriages should never be legal. She does, however, support the Life Partnership Act.
There was much resistance to the referendum in Croatia, with some of the media, like daily newspaper Jutarnji list, donating its advertising space to all the organisations and citizens who felt threatened by the referendum. Aside from well-known public figures who were openly against the referendum, the Jewish Community in Zagreb and a Lutheran church were two religious organisations who also publicly opposed to it. Some of the most popular Croatian entertainers including Severina, TBF, Let 3 organised a concert gathering thousands of people in support of same-sex marriage on the main Zagreb square. Croatian psychologists and psychology students organised a petition in support of same-sex marriage. On 30 November 2013, one day before the referendum, around a thousand people marched in the city of Zagreb in support of same-sex marriage. Marches of support also took place in Pula, Split and Rijeka gathering hundreds of people.
The referendum took place on 1 December 2013. 65,87% voted in favour of the constitutional change, and 33.51% voted against. Turnout was low, only 37.9% of the people participated. However, not all counties voted in favour of an amendment. Istria and Primorje-Gorski Kotar voted against with 58.23% and 53.30% respectively. When it came to larger cities, Rijeka voted against with 59.27%, and Pula voted against with 63.64%. Most cities in these two counties voted against, with Labin being the leader with 70.97%. When it came to cities outside these two counties Varaždin and Čakovec also voted against with 56.94% and 58.95% respectively. Zagreb voted 55.90% in favour and 43.50% against; the remaining votes being invalid.
In the aftermath of the referendum, the Croatian Government with the support of some opposition parties started working on changes to the Constitution and the referendum process. The section referring to referendums would clearly define what questions can or cannot be subject to referendums. Furthermore, if citizens want to change the Constitution, turnout must be over 50%. Constitutional changes currently require support from two-thirds of MPs. Then Croatian President Ivo Josipović suggested that other forms of family life outside marriage should also be protected by the Constitution to balance the injustice created by the referendum on marriage, but his proposal was rejected. In May 2018, the Social Democratic Party launched an initiative to amend the Constitution to prevent referendums designed with "reducing fundamental civil rights and freedoms".
In 2018, the Croatian Government ratified (in a 110-30 vote) the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention). The treaty aims to safeguard the rights of women against domestic violence, protect victims of domestic violence and prosecute the offenders. Right-wing groups and the Catholic Church opposed the ratification, erroneously believing it would legalise same-sex marriage.
2018 European Court of Justice ruling
On 5 June 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that all EU countries that do not recognise same-sex marriages (including Croatia) must legally recognise such marriages performed in EU countries where they are legal, and grant same-sex couples in which one partner is an EU citizen full residency rights. The Court ruled that EU member states may choose whether or not to allow same-sex marriage, but they cannot obstruct the freedom of residence of an EU citizen and their spouse. Furthermore, the Court ruled that the term "spouse" is gender-neutral, and that it does not necessarily imply a person of the opposite sex.
Full joint adoption for same-sex couples in Croatia is not legal, but a single person regardless of sexual orientation is allowed to adopt. However, the Life Partnership Act recognizes an institution similar to stepchild adoption called partner-guardianship.
A life partner who is not the biological parent of his partners' child or children can gain parental responsibilities on a temporary or permanent basis. During a life partnership, a parent or parents of a child or children can temporarily entrust a life partner who is not the biological parent with parental rights. Should those rights last over 30 days, the decision must be certified with the solicitor. In this situation, as long as the parental rights last, parent/parents and a life partner must agree on decisions important for the child's/children's well-being. In case of a dissolution of a life partnership, a partner who is not the biological parent can maintain personal relationship with the child or children, should the court decide it is in their best interest. Partner-guardianship is an institution created within the Life Partnership Act that enables a life partner who is not the biological parent to gain permanent parental rights, and is similar to stepchild adoption. Such a relationship between the non-parent life partner and the child may be established under two conditions; if the child's or children's parent-partner is deceased, under condition that a second parent is also deceased, or his/her parental rights have been terminated due to child abuse. Alternately, if a parent-partner is alive, but a second parent is unknown, deceased, or his/her parental rights have been terminated, the life partner who is not the biological parent can become a partner-guardian if the court decides in their favour. Both formal and informal life partners are eligible to partner-guardianship. The partner-guardian receives full parental responsibility as is the case with stepchild adoption, and is registered in the child's birth certificate as their partner-guardian. Partner-guardianship is a permanent next-of-kin relationship with all the right, responsibilities, and legal impacts as that of a parent and a child. A single person regardless of sexual orientation is allowed to adopt. On 13 July 2015, it was reported that the first case of partner-guardianship had been granted.
In May 2012, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Welfare Policy and Youth Milanka Opačić expressed her support for LGBT parenting and said that Croatia should progress to the point where that is acceptable and tolerated, but not just yet as the current situation could lead to discrimination of children from those families and stated that this is the main reason for taking step by step regarding LGBT rights. However, statements coming from her were not welcomed by some NGOs who stated that there are already children in Croatia who live in same-sex families and those families are desperate for law solutions to their everyday problems; so she should not be perpetuating discriminatory policies, but rather help to create acceptable solutions and fight against discrimination.
Vesna Pusić has long been a supporter for full LGBT parenting. In July 2012, Minister of War Veterans and member of the SDP Predrag Matić also expressed his support for adoption and said that society should not falter in achieving equal rights due to pressure coming from right-wing and radical circles. This was seen as a major step considering that war veteran associations are usually associated with right-wing politics. Minister of Economy Ivan Vrdoljak said that adoption should be allowed and expressed his hope that the Government would introduce it by the end of their mandate which expires in 2015.
In July 2014, the Government passed the Life Partnership Act with a majority of MPs in the Croatian Parliament voting for it. For the first time in Croatia, this made unmarried opposite-sex couples equal to married couples, including in adoption. This was seen by some as the first step towards full adoption rights, even though the Life Partnership Act is not part of Croatian family law. Barrister Sanja Bezbradica Jelavić and professor at the University of Rijeka Sanja Barić pointed out that the European Court of Human Rights does not suggest same-sex couples have to be equal to married couples, but it does, however, suggest that they must be equal to unmarried couples. They referred to the X and Others v. Austria case in which the court decided that the partner in a same-sex union has the right to adopt his or her partner's biological child as the same was possible for unmarried opposite-sex couples. They pointed out that following this decision and logic it is only a matter of time until same-sex couples are allowed to fully adopt in Croatia. Two options are possible; this question can be put before the Constitutional Court in Croatia, and if that proves to be unsuccessful the next step would be the European Court of Human Rights, a decision which would be obligatory for Croatia. Minister of Administration Arsen Bauk said that the Government has no intentions of changing the Life Partnership Act at this point, and it would leave this question for future parliamentary debates.
In May 2017, it was reported that a male couple in a life partnership had brought a case before the Constitutional Court after being denied access to the adoption registry, based on the fact that Croatian law does not provide life partnerships with full adoption rights. Previously, the couple had successfully completed a course preparing potential parents for adoption. Despite Croatia not explicitly providing full adoption rights to couples in life partnerships, the couple, and their barrister, Sanja Bezbradica Jelavić, stated that the Life Partnership Act and the Family Code specifically say that couples in life partnerships must be equal to married couples. Furthermore, the Life Partnerships Act says that any issues regarding children that are not defined by the partner-guardian institution will be dealt with by the Family Code, thus making this case a discrimination one. The couple and their barrister also confirmed that, in the case of an unsatisfactory verdict, they will bring their case before the European Court of Human Rights, citing previous similar cases which ended with a positive verdict. As of 12 May 2017, the case is still pending.
The 2015 Eurobarometer found that 37% of Croatians thought that same-sex marriage should be allowed throughout Europe. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2015-2016 found that 31% of Croatians supported same-sex marriage, with 64% opposed.
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