Challenged definition of family has sent tremors throughout the conservative landscape

  • 2011-10-12
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

SURPRISE, SURPRISE: Marija Ausrine Pavilioniene says the world is changing, along with perceptions on what constitutes the family.

KLAIPEDA - The Lithuanian Constitutional Court’s ruling that the much-discussed legislation, passed by the Conservatives’ votes and referred to as the “Family Policy Concept,” contradicts the Lithuanian Constitution and, therefore, has to be overturned, has shaken Lithuania to its core, driving some far-right politicians, like Cambridge graduate and MP Mantas Adomenas, crazy. “The Constitutional Court is a judicial junta, a Belarusian-type court that serves somebody’s interests,” Adomenas erupted like a volcano in Seimas.

What does the ruling implicate? Will all families in wedlock, following the ruling, be forced onto a pagan-like bonfire and burnt? Or maybe rainbow flags will replace crucifixes in Lithuanian Catholic Schools with a queer history, instead of Bible studies, as a sign of the shift in the family policy?

Not only the hardcore conservatives, but everyone concerned about the aftermath of the court decision, should calm down - nothing of this kind is happening in the country that (un)justifiably calls itself the land of Saint Mary.
Nevertheless, Lithuania, for the first time since the restoration of independence, has been facing the question which, for many, rattles the background of statehood – how should the institution of the family in modern Lithuania be defined?
Simply speaking, what is family? Well, it depends on how you look at it, especially today, with the institution being churned up by Western modernization winds and the new reality: over 40 percent of Lithuanian couples shun the cuffs of wedlock and live as partners, bearing 35 percent of all Lithuanian babies.

The Conservatives, influenced by the strong Lithuanian Catholic Church, in attempts to win over a predominantly Roman Catholic electorate, have turned a blind eye to the new reality and, in the beginning of June, with the bulk of the votes from the Homeland Union-Christian Democratic Party, passed legislation referred to as the “Family Policy Concept,” defining the family in the eyes of the country’s legal system as a man’s and woman’s wedlock, sketching out the framework for how to establish this family policy through various laws and foreseeing measures, including financial incentives, to boost families in wedlock.
By the concept, divorcees, widows and widowers with children were considered to be an “incomplete family,” making them unable to receive the advantages of married couples. The concept was hailed by many conservative-minded public officials, family rights defenders and, especially, the powerful Lithuania Catholic Church’s clergy.

“Lithuania is the first country in the world that is trying to save the family,” stated Ricardas Doveika, a prominent Catholic priest who is rumored to be gay. Doveika had been very active in drafting the concept, has spoken out against homosexuals and is actively seeking an abortion ban. His thoughts were earnestly supported by Algimantas Ramonas, chairman of the National Association of Lithuania’s Families and Parents. “The institute of family has already disappeared in Europe. All of Europe is now looking at us and waiting to see what Lithuania will do,”  Ramonas admonished.

“We have to do something, because in a few years not 30 percent, but 60 percent of children will be born out of marriage. Then, we will have to build new prisons since, according to statistics, most prisons primarily contain children of single parents and broken families,” proclaimed the head of the conservative Homeland Union party, Andrius Kubilius.
His colleague, Rimantas Jonas Dagys, went even further, speaking like a Taliban-priest: “Only healthy ‘entities’ that provide healthy ‘production,’ in other words, good children and who cause no problems, should be supported.”
These statements have pained single parents as well as some married couples and those thousands of couples who live as partners - not being engaged in matrimonial ties.

From the beginning, this kind of issue has been finding abundant criticism from liberals and Social democrats, and even from some liberal-minded Conservative MPs. With the controversial concept passed, a group of center-left MPs filed a constitutional inquiry to the Lithuanian Constitutional Court, asking it to evaluate the constitutionality of the “Family Policy Concept.” The Court announced its verdict last week, ruling that the concept contradicts the Lithuanian Constitution.

“The constitutional conception of family cannot be arisen from the institution of marriage only. The institution of family and marriage are intertwined inseparably and unarguably; however, it is only one of the possible forms of family. The constitutional conception of family is based on family members’ mutual responsibility, emotional attachment, support and voluntary self-determination to assume certain rights and duties, i.e. content of the relationships; however, the manifestation forms of the relationships are not essentially important to the constitutional conception of family. Therefore, having defined family as a man’s and woman’s wedlock together with their children or foster-children, Seimas has narrowed the perception of family in terms of the content of the constitutional institute, and has not followed the Constitution, which allows family creation not necessarily on the foundation of wedlock,” the Constitutional Court’s ruling read.

In other words, the Court said couples who are not in wedlock, and single parents, are also families.
The ruling has come as a big surprise to Seimas’ legislators on both sides of the ranks. “I still can hardly believe that the Constitutional Court has ruled this way, showing its impartiality and tenacity. I am very pleasantly surprised,” Marija Ausrine Pavilioniene, a Social democrat MP and a staunch critic of the concept, rejoiced to The Baltic Times.
She calls the verdict a “severe blow” to the Conservatives and the Lithuanian Catholic Church.

“Obviously, it is a very big setback for them. I hope they will sober up and realize that the world is changing, as well as the old-fashioned perception of what a family is. Lithuania has ultimately to address the new realities in the landscape of people’s relationships, follow the good practice of Western European countries and adapt its family-related legislation to the EU’s. To see some of their parliament members on the right so frustrated over the ruling and accusing the Constitutional Court over all possible wrongdoings is just, politely speaking, not very nice from the traditionalists,” Pavilioniene emphasized.

She had called the “Family Policy Concept” discriminatory numerous times, as it identified family and marriage, discriminating against those individuals who are engaged in voluntary partnerships. “Had the concept withstood the Constitutional Court’s scrutiny, those people out of wedlock would have simply been seen as second hand people in a large framework of different family-oriented legislation. The concept has been based on Catholic dogmas, not heeding the different concepts of family and its forms, especially in a modern open democratic society,” the legislator pointed out.

Pavilioniene says the government and Seimas will have to overhaul the concept and will come up with a new one, corresponding to the remarks by the Constitutional Court. “The ruling pointing to various forms of family encourages seeking adoption of a Civil Partnership Law, however, I am sure Seimas’ tenure will not resolve this kind of legislation,” the MP maintained.

The Lithuanian Civil Code allows civil partnerships, but, with no other legislation supplementing the Civil Code norm, such partnerships are impossible in the country. The prominent human rights activist revealed that she, along with some other legislators, is working on a draft of the Partnership Law.

“We are working on what I call a ‘brave law,’ possibly including possibilities for same-sex partnerships. I have always stood for equality. I have no doubt it will be very hard to introduce and have it passed in the Seimas. If all goes well, I hope we will be able to put a draft of the bill on the legislators’ table at the end of the tenure. However, first I will have to prove to my Social Democrat colleagues that the bill is necessary,” Pavilioniene said.

Egidijus Kuris, a former Constitutional Court judge and currently a Vilnius University law professor, speaking of the court ruling says that, in the Constitution, there are terms which cannot be clearly defined “for all cases of life,” like the “Lithuanian nation,” and “ethnical minorities.”

“The term family also falls in this category. Neither the Civil Code, nor the Lithuanian family-oriented legislation defines what family is. The spearheads of the  ‘Family Policy Concept’ have tried to do this, but did not do it in the best way,  raising the concept above all other family-oriented legislation, and not heeding the dynamic processes that influence the conception of family,” Kuris pointed out.

Kestutis Girnius, the prominent political analyst who has spent most of his life in the United States, said to The Baltic Times that he “did not take a closer look at the ruling by the Constitutional Court, but it [ruling] stipulates possibly new perceptions of what family is today, and which will have to reflect in some forms, in further family-focused laws.”
“Certainly, the judges were concerned about the concept’s compliance with the Lithuanian Constitution from the point of view of constitutionality. Nevertheless, they are smart people who follow the changes in the concepts of family across the European Union and the modern world. Certainly, they have also been influenced by the trends in reviewing the concept and passing their ruling,” Girnius said.

“In the United States’ courts, as a rule, concrete questions by concrete people are asked. In my opinion, the Lithuanian Constitutional Court had to deal with a rather indefinite, non-specific formulation of the question. In addition, upon such cases, the court procedures start from lower courts in the U.S., and the claims have to overcome at least two or three courts of this kind before reaching the Supreme Court. Lithuania risks overflowing its Constitutional Court with claims,” the political analyst pointed out.

Algirdas Sysas, a Social Democrat MP who was among those MPs to spearhead the constitutional inquiry, and who took the witness stand in the Constitutional Court hearing, rejoices over the ruling, saying, “I am happy the Constitutional Court has refused to legitimize the dubious terms of family - harmonious family, extended family and incomplete family. There was a big concern that the state might support what it calls harmonious families and not support non-harmonious families.”
The Social Democrat feared that the “Family Policy Concept” would stigmatize single parents, non-married families and other, what the Conservatives call incomplete families. At the hearing, he pointed out that most of family-oriented state projects in Lithuania are being won by Catholic organizations, especially Caritas, that deny contraception use, sex education in secondary schools and are against abortion.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling, however, has triggered vivid outbursts of frustration, and even quite a sickish fury from the right-wing MPs. “It [ruling] will instigate a further wave of teenage suicides in the country, just because the Constitutional Court, essentially, has supported the model of family which lacks the gist of a family – obligation and responsibility. The court stands for a family which is not bound by responsibility, and where children and parents can live the way they want,” Rimantas Dagys, a Conservative, lamented.

The aforementioned Cambridge-graduate Adomenas was infuriated by the Constitutional Court’s decision, calling the court “a judicial junta.”
“I am not talking about Lukashenko and not about some military juntas. I am speaking of a judicial junta, the dictatorship of courts. The Constitutional Court has not restricted itself with answering the given question, but has entangled itself in the creation of additional legal reality.  Not selected by anyone, irresponsible to anyone, a little circle of people bend the Constitution to their liking, arising from their biased opinions. It is a criminal activity and a very a dangerous trend,” the Conservative fumed.

However, he seems to have forgotten that the Constitutional Court judges are assigned by Seimas. Both Adomenas and Dagys vow to initiate a referendum on the definition of family in Lithuania. Adomenas’ accusations of the Constitutional Court were not dismissed by Seimas’ Social Democrats, who threaten to impeach the self-proclaimed defender of Christian values.
The former Constitutional Court judge Kuris attributes Adomenas’ outburst to the “will to put himself above the Constitution.”
“That is how various juntas are born. I doubt whether this Conservative parliamentarian would dare to make such a vociferous announcement if he was under scrutiny himself and risked losing his parliamentary mandate,” Kuris said to Delfi, referring to the parliamentary investigation which revealed that the Adomenas-headed Institute of Democratic Politics was allocated 2.5 million litas (724,600 euros) to create a rating system of Lithuanian universities. The speculation that Adomenas cashed in from the deal was not proved, but the financing of the creation of such a system was ruled a waste of state money.