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EU Court Hands Union Perks to Gay Couples

(CN) - Company perks given to married employees must also be extended to workers in same-sex registered domestic partnerships, the EU high court ruled Thursday.

Frederic Hay, an employee of Credit Agricole Mutuel in France, discovered to his dismay that aspects of a collective bargaining agreement - special leave days and a salary bonus - given to employees when they got married did not apply to him, his partner or their civil union.

Hay brought a challenge before the French courts, arguing that his union perpetrated sexual orientation discrimination by denying him the same benefits his married coworkers received on their wedding days. The French court of appeals asked the Court of Justice of the European Union whether EU antidiscrimination law applied to Hay's situation as a union member with a collective bargaining agreement.

The EU's highest court found no difference between married opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples with legally recognized domestic partnerships, especially given the latter was Hay's only option in France at the time. The country legalized same-sex marriage earlier this year.

"It is apparent that persons of the same sex may conclude a pact in order to organize their life together by committing, in the context of that life together, to providing material aid and assistance to each other," the court wrote. "The pact, which must be the subject of a joint declaration and registration with the registry of the court within whose jurisdiction the persons concerned establish their common residence, constitutes, like marriage, a form of civil union under French law which places the couple within a specific legal framework entailing rights and obligations in respect of each other and vis-à-vis third parties. Although the pacts may also be concluded by persons of different sexes, and although there may be general differences between the systems governing marriage and the pact arrangement, the latter was at the time of the facts in the main proceedings the only possibility under French law for same-sex couples to procure legal status for their relationship which could be certain and effective against third parties."

The court continued: "Thus, as regards benefits in terms of pay or working conditions, such as days of special leave and a bonus like those at issue in the main proceedings, granted at the time of an employee's marriage - which is a form of civil union - persons of the same sex who cannot enter into marriage and therefore conclude a pact are in a situation which is comparable to that of couples who marry."

Furthermore, union rules and national law that restrict benefits to married employees only - in countries where same-sex marriage is not yet legal - "give rise to direct discrimination based on sexual orientation against homosexual permanent employees in a pact arrangement who are in a comparable situation," according to the Luxembourg-based high court.

"The fact that pacts are not restricted only to homosexual couples is irrelevant and in particular does not change the nature of the discrimination against homosexual couples who, unlike heterosexual couples, could not on the date of the facts in the main proceedings legally enter into marriage," the court concluded, handing the case back to the French appellate court for a final ruling.

As a footnote, Hay's union changed its rules to allow same-sex couple benefits in 2008 - but refused to make the change retroactive to his 2007 domestic partnership filing.

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