The Irish state’s refusal to recognise or allow same-sex marriages was compared to racial prejudice in the US during a landmark case before the High Court today.
Lesbian couple Dr Katherine Zappone and Dr Ann Louise Gilligan are taking an action against Ireland’s Revenue Commissioners after it refused to treat them the same as heterosexual married couples for tax purposes.
They married under Canadian law in Vancouver in September 13, 2003.
Michael Collins, senior counsel for the pair, said they wanted the High Court to recognise the status of their marriage or allow them to marry in Ireland.
In his opening arguments in the case, which is expected to run for three weeks, he said they had rights to marry each other under the Irish Constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
He told Judge Elizabeth Dunne they are being discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or gender.
The state has never put forward any specific justification for its discrimination and the burden was on it to prove what public good was being served by the ban, according to Mr Collins.
Dr Zappone, a public policy research consultant and member of the Irish Human Rights Commission, and Dr Gilligan, an academic, first met when they were both students in Boston, in 1980.
They moved to Ireland three years later and have been cohabiting ever since.
Their claim for the same allowances as married couples in their tax returns for 2004 were refused after the Revenue argued the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of a husband and wife as a married man and married woman.
Mr Collins warned the state, as co-defendant, could not be directed by a perceived majority view among the public.
There were many cases where society outlawed practices “on grounds that were later shown to be utterly indefensible", he said.
He cited as an example the prohibition of interracial marriage in many states in the US for years under the threat of criminal prosecution.
Dr Zappone, spoke ahead of the hearing, insisting her marriage should be seen as valid in Ireland.
“We are most appreciative that the High Court is going to be hearing the arguments. We are married, happily married, living in a lifelong monogamous partnership,” she said.
Human rights campaigners, politicians and civil liberties groups all came out in support of the couple.
Senator David Norris, human rights campaigner, said: “It strikes a blow for real freedom. It is about human liberty and human freedom, and I think the Irish people are extremely lucky to have such a distinguished dignified couple who have made such a contribution to Irish life.”
The youth wing of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions added their voices.
Edward Matthews, head of Congress Youth, said: “Irish society is changing at a more rapid pace than legislation. Katherine and Ann Louise’s relationship should be recognised if the Government is committed to diversity and equality.”
The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) said the taking of the case underlines the increased confidence gay and lesbian people have in their status as full and equal citizens under the Constitution.
Ciaran Cuffe, Green Party equality spokesman, said discrimination still plagued certain groups in Irish society.
“The constitutional rights that we in Ireland cherish, such as the right to equality and marriage, and property and family rights, continue to be denied to certain groups of people living in the state,” Mr Cuffe said.
“Furthermore, in denying same sex couples these rights, Ireland is in breach of the rights to privacy, marriage and non-discrimination under the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Aengus O’Snodaigh, Sinn Fein’s equality spokesman, wished the women every success.
“It is deeply regrettable that they have been forced to take this case to vindicate their right to equal treatment by this state, but it is inspiring to see the courage displayed by these women and their supporters,” Mr O’Snodaigh said.
He also condemned Tanaiste and Justice Minister Michael McDowell for ruling out a constitutional amendment to give recognition to same-sex marriages.