Lesbian couple wed in Canada launch landmark lawsuit seeking marriage rights in Ireland

A lesbian couple who were legally married in Canada launched a landmark lawsuit Tuesday seeking to win the same legal rights and financial benefits as married heterosexuals in Ireland.

Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone who were married in Vancouver, British Columbia, in September 2003 within months of the legalization of same-sex marriage there are the first gay couple in Ireland to go to court to seek state recognition of a foreign marriage.

It is also the first such lawsuit filed in Europe. Belgium and the Netherlands already recognize same-sex marriages and several other nations grant homosexual couples tax, inheritance and child-rearing rights similar to those for married heterosexuals.

The Irish government has indicated it may eventually extend marriage-style rights to homosexual couples but is defending the action, citing the 1937 constitution's requirement "to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack." Homosexuality was illegal in Ireland until 1993.

The lawsuit in the High Court, the second-highest court in Ireland, is expected to last about three weeks and involve about a dozen witnesses testifying on behalf of the women. Whatever the outcome, legal experts expect the losing side to appeal to the Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of constitutional law.

Gilligan, a Dublin college lecturer in philosophy, is Irish and a former Catholic nun. Zappone, a member of Ireland's government-appointed Human Rights Commission, is an American from Seattle, Washington. They have been a couple since the mid-1980s when both were finishing their doctoral degrees at Boston College in the United States. They moved together to Ireland two decades ago and have worked together on a string of research projects dealing with urban poverty and feminist rights.

They also own two properties together an issue driving their demand to have their foreign union recognized for tax purposes here.

Their legal battle began in 2004 when they challenged the Irish tax authorities' refusal to recognize the existence of their Canadian marriage. This meant they had to file tax separately, a more expensive option, and were unable to claim their full deductions for their properties, reports AP.

In the longer term, when one of them dies, the other could face a struggle to exercise inheritance rights and, under current law, would face much higher tax burden than a heterosexual widow or widower.

The case, if successful, would have major implications for Ireland's unmarried couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, in this predominantly Catholic country of 4.2 million. The 2001 census identified 77,600 households involving unmarried partners among them 1,300 homosexual couples who must pay higher rates of income and inheritance taxes than married couples.