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A straight Austrian couple wants a same-sex marriage

The case could open up registered partnerships to all but activists question whether it will help gay rights.

The head of Vienna's civil registry office Beatrix Hornschall addresses a news conference in Vienna after she registered Austria's first Eingetragene Partnerschaft (registered partnership) between two men on Jan. 4, 2010. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

GRAZ, Austria — A straight couple in Austria this month launch their bid to have a same-sex marriage.

"Registered partnerships" have been available to gays and lesbians in Austria since Jan. 1 thanks to a law passed Nov. 17, following a lengthy tug-of-war within the left-right coalition government. The partnerships have significant differences from marriages under Austrian law, some of which make them attractive to opposite-sex couples.

In debate over the law, the center-right Austrian People's Party insisted that same-sex couples not be allowed to use a hyphenated name, adopt children, have the right to fertility treatment or have a registry office ceremony. While both partnerships and marriages include key benefits such as tax breaks and access to social welfare, gay and lesbian rights campaign group LAMBDA says there are more than 72 differences in total between the two statuses.

Nevertheless, the new partnerships represent "progress," said Helmut Graupner, the Vienna-based lawyer leading the case on behalf of the opposite-sex couple, who are from Linz. "But if you introduce a new legal institution at the beginning of the 21st century then you can't make distinctions on the basis of gender."

"What the legislators did was to discriminate against same-sex couples wanting to get married as well as discriminate against opposite-sex couples, by not letting them form registered partnerships," Graupner added. "You can't be a little bit equal, just as you can't be a little bit dead or a little bit pregnant."

France's version of "marriage light" known as a "pacte civil de solidarite," or PACS, has been available to couples regardless of their gender since 1999 and has proved very popular. Of the 140,000 PACS formed in 2008, 92 percent were between couples with partners of different sexes.

"The couple I am representing have been together for 20 years and their children have already grown up," Graupner said. "They are not interested in adopting children or in medically-assisted pro-creation," which are areas where registered partnerships offer fewer rights than traditional marriage.