(CN) - In a precedent-setting move, Europe's highest court ruled Tuesday that couples in same-sex civil unions deserve the same retirement benefits as those who are married.
Jürgen Römer worked as administrative employee for the city of Hamburg in Germany for 40 years, until he became permanently incapacitated in 1990.
Since 1969, he'd been living with his partner, named in the court documents as Mr. U. After Germany legalized same-sex civil unions in 2001, Römer and his partner registered their union, also notifying his former employer and requesting a recalculation of Römer's pension benefits.
Römer would have received about $430 a month more if he and his partner were placed into the same category as married couples. But Hamburg denied the request, saying only married couples can claim the higher rate.
A German court referred the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union after Römer sued the city.
The Luxembourg-based court ruled Tuesday that although German law does not recognize gay marriage, there is virtually no difference between the status of married couples and those in a registered, permanent life partnership.
Life partners have a duty to support and care for each other, the court said, also noting that Römer paid the same amount into the retirement system as a married person, and would have received the higher benefit if he had been married to a woman.
Thus, under EU law, not treating the union the same as marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the court wrote.
The court added that the benefits can only be claimed as of December 2003, when an EU directive on equal treatment in employment came into effect.
Although most countries in the 27-member EU recognize same-sex unions, only seven have legalized gay marriage. Gay marriage is currently not recognized in Germany.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.