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Hong Kong Court: Denying Same-Sex Spousal Benefits Unlawful

FILE - Hundreds of members from the legal sector stage a silent protest outside the Court of Final Appeal, against Beijing's most direct intervention in Hong Kong's legal and political system since the 1997 handover, in Hong Kong, China, Nov. 8, 2016.

Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal said Thursday the government cannot deny spousal employment benefits to same-sex couples, in a ruling hailed as a major step forward for same-sex equality in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

The court overturned an earlier judgment, saying unanimously that denying same-sex couples access to spousal benefits is unlawful.

“It follows therefore that the ‘prevailing views of the community on marriage’ ... even if this can confidently be gauged in the first place, are simply not relevant to a consideration of the justification exercise,” the ruling said.

Although same-sex marriage is not recognized in Hong Kong, the Court of Final Appeal ruled last year that the same-sex partner of a British expatriate married abroad was entitled to equal visa treatment under immigration law.

'Huge step forward for equality'

Man-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, called Thursday’s judgment a “huge step forward for equality” that brings Hong Kong “more in line with its international obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of people with different sexual orientations.”

Tam called on the government to review its laws, policies and practices to end all discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identities and intersex status, saying, “No one should experience discrimination because of who they are or who they love.”

Taiwan and China

Taiwan last month became the first place in Asia to allow same-sex marriage in a legislative vote on a cause that the island’s LGBT rights activists have championed for two decades. Hundreds of same-sex couples rushed to get married on the first day the decision took effect.

In mainland China, the Communist Party-ruled government has ruled out the possibility of same-sex marriage without ever hearing legal arguments on the matter and strictly limits the activities of gay rights organizations. Hong Kong is a former British colony and maintains its own Western-style legal system distinct from China’s heavily politicized courts. With its large semi-permanent foreign population, the city is also far more socially liberal than the mainland.

Still, Hong Kong’s High Court earlier this year refused to allow three transgender men to be recognized as males on their official identity cards because they have not undergone full sex-change operations.