VIENNA, Austria - After facing a legal challenge by a lesbian couple, Austria’s top court allowed same-sex marriage by 2019.
The decision by the court brought the often conservative Alpine country into line with more than a dozen other European nations.
A statement released on Tuesday said, “The Constitutional Court nullified with a decision on December 4, 2017 the legal regulation that until now prevented such couples from marrying.”
However, it said that the current rules would remain in place until December 31, 2018, unless Austria's parliament changes the law before the end of 2018.
It said that a lesbian couple denied the right to marry who brought the case, and four other couples who also filed a complaint, can tie the knot now.
The Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry in a civil ceremony in April 2001.
So far, apart from Austria, 15 European countries have followed including Belgium, France, Britain, Ireland and Germany.
However, many ex-Communist eastern European countries - including Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Slovakia - still deny homosexuals the right to marry or enter into unions.
In 2009, Austria passed a law allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships but stopped short of allowing them to marry.
The new court ruling, however, said that recent changes including allowing gay couples to adopt children meant that the two institutions were now largely identical.
The court said in its ruling, “The resulting discriminatory effect is seen in the fact that through the different title of the family status people living in same-sex partnerships have to disclose their sexual orientation even in situations, in which it is not and must not be relevant and... are highly likely to be discriminated.”
The court also said that civil partnerships must also be open to heterosexual couples and not just same-sex ones as at present.
Helmut Graupner, a lawyer for the two women who brought the case, said that this is the first time that a European court has lifted a ban on same-sex marriage.
He said on Facebook, “Accordingly Austria is the first European country to recognise marriage equality for same-gender couples as a fundamental human right. All the other European states with marriage equality introduced it (just) the political way.”
Adding, “The Austrian Constitutional Court gave the most wonderful Christmas present one could imagine to loving couples.”
The decision was welcomed by the Homosexual Initiative Vienna (HOSI).
HOSI chairman Christian Hoegl said, “We are very happy. We want to use the opportunity for a renewed call for a fundamental reform of marriage.”
Last month, Australia became the 26th nation to follow suit after the country voted overwhelmingly in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage.