* Constitutional Court says German tax law discriminatory
* German conservatives deeply divided on same-sex couples
* Merkel needs traditionalist support in Sept. 22 vote
By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN, June 6 Germany's top court said on
Thursday that gay couples are entitled to the same tax benefits
as married heterosexuals in a ruling which threatens to deepen
rifts within Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives just three
months before an election.
The verdict requires a change in the law and is a red rag to
some in Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and its traditionally
Catholic Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union
(CSU), who worry that conservative values are being diluted.
The ruling was widely expected after the court in February
overturned a ban on same-sex couples adopting a child already
adopted by one of the partners.
"The provisions set out in the income-tax law violate the
general rule of equality," wrote the Karlsruhe-based court,
adding the law should be changed retroactively from Aug. 2001.
Same-sex partnerships have been legal in Germany since 2001
but do not enjoy the same tax benefits as married heterosexuals.
Gay rights have become a flashpoint in several countries.
When France became the 14th country to allow same-sex marriage
in May, conservatives and Catholics took to the streets.
The German court ruling was greeted by opposition Social
Democrats (SPD) and Greens and by Merkel's junior coalition
partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), as a signal for tolerance.
FDP Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, himself in a gay
relationship, said the ruling showed the time had come "for
German tax law to be as modern as its society".
CDU Family Minister Kristina Schroeder welcomed the ruling
and said the law would be changed. But ahead of the September
election, in which Merkel is seeking a third term, it could fuel
dissent among conservatives who are deeply divided on the
In March the CDU bowed to pressure from traditionalists and
ruled out a change in the law despite pressure from some leading
figures including respected Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
Merkel, keen to avoid a pre-election showdown with the CDU
and CSU's right wing which is losing atience with her centrist
policies, has not come down on one side or the other in public.
To poach votes from the SPD she has abandoned conservative
doctrines like conscription and nuclear power and adopted SPD
ideas such as a minimum wage and strengthening tenants' rights.
"This decision was widely expected but I still don't think
it's right," said CSU lawmaker Norbert Geis. "The sanctity of
marriage is undermined."
Merkel, who still tops popularity polls, is likely to win
reelection but may have to seek a coalition with the SPD instead
of the FDP. Either way she needs the CSU, which makes up about
20 percent of her parliamentary bloc and will not take any risks
before a Bavarian election a week ahead of the national vote.
The opposition attacked the government for flouting Germans'
rights. "It's no surprise that the government's family and tax
policy is unconstitutional as it is based on the homophobic,
discriminatory views of Merkel's conservatives," said SPD
general secretary Andrea Nahles.