Polish conservatives aghast at Human Rights Court verdict

Editor's note: As part of our ongoing Rainbow Planet series chronicling the global fight for gay rights, correspondents look at eastern European countries whose traditional values clash with those of their western European partners. Below, Jan Cienski reports that a decision by the European Court of Human Rights has angered conservatives. In neighboring Lithuania, David L. Stern examines a new law that could stigmatize gays and lesbians — or worse.

WARSAW, Poland — Polish conservatives have long warned that cozying up to western Europe may help the country’s economy and security, but carries grave dangers of importing western values that are anathema to traditionalists.

They have been proven correct by a recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled on whether a common law spouse of a deceased man could take over his rights to rent a low-cost apartment from the government of the western Polish city of Szczecin.

The common law spouse was a man, Piotr Kozak, and Polish law, which only recognizes marriage as “a union of a man and a woman,” makes no provision for same-sex couples.

After his partner’s death in 1998, Kozak was turned down by the city in his request to stay in the apartment, and his claims were rejected by a series of Polish courts before he went to the Human Rights Court (which is not connected to the European Union) in Strasbourg.

There, the court found that, while protecting the family was a legitimate reason which could justify a difference in treatment, it also found that the 1953 Human Rights Convention “is a living instrument, to be interpreted in the light of present-day conditions.”

The led to a unanimous verdict that found: “a blanket exclusion of persons living in a homosexual relationship from succession to a tenancy cannot be accepted by the Court as necessary for the protection of the family viewed in its traditional sense.”

Although the ruling did not say whether Kozak can continue living in the apartment, and did not agree with his request for damages, gay rights groups are greeting it as a victory.

“In its ruling, the [Court] reminded, yet again, that sexual orientation is one of the most intimate and personal characteristics of every person, and as such is protected,” said Krzysztof Smiszek, a lawyer for the Campaign Against Homophobia, a gay rights group.

Other gay rights activists say that they expect an avalanche of similar cases to now begin appearing in Polish courts.

Polish conservatives are aghast.

“The [Court]’s decision seems to be part of a recently fashionable trend in Strasbourg where ideology is seen as more important than a verification of the state of the law in a given country,” writes Tomasz Pietryga, a columnist for the center-right Rzeczpospolita newspaper.

Marek Jurek, a right-wing politician and former speaker of parliament, called the decision “an attack on the Polish family,” and appealed to Lech Kaczynski, the president, to deal with the issue.

Kaczynski is responsible for another Human Rights Court verdict finding that Poland was in the wrong for a decision in 2005 by the city of Warsaw to ban a gay pride parade, when Kaczynski was the city’s mayor.

Kaczynski was then planning on running for the presidency, and was seeking to appeal to Poland’s conservative voters. In a country where more than 90 percent of people are officially Roman Catholic, there is less sympathy for gay rights than in more secular countries like the Czech Republic, where same-sex relationships have been recognized since 2006.

“Poland isn’t all that friendly a country for gays,” said Piotr, a Polish artist who now lives with his partner in Germany and asked that his last name not be used. The two of them traveled to Warsaw in 2005 to protest Kaczynski’s decision, but have no intention of moving back to Poland, despite the Court's ruling. “Life is simply a lot easier for us outside of Poland.”

As for Kozak, the 59-year-old has become a poster-boy for gay rights in Poland.

“Even today, there is a problem with being open about being gay or lesbian,” he told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. “We bother a lot of people.”

When asked about the verdict, he said: “I am stunned. Finally Europe is showing us what tolerance looks like. The law should be changed, and maybe I will help with that.”

That is exactly what Poland’s conservatives are afraid of.