Artistic Director, Jin Xing Dance Theatre Shanghai, Jin Xing speaks at the 4th annual Pride and Prejudice event in Hong Kong on May 29, 2019. - Pride and Prejudice focuses on the significance of LGBT inclusion in all aspects of business and politics and debates how governments, companies and individuals can become advocates, and help improve the legal rights of LGBT people worldwide. (Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong's top court Thursday ordered the government to grant spousal rights and benefits to the husband of a gay civil servant who married overseas, in a ruling hailed as a "huge step forward for equality". The judgment, handed down by the Court of Final Appeal, is the latest instance where the judiciary has found against the government and in favor of same-sex couples seeking greater equality.

Hong Kong does not recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions and only decriminalized homosexuality in 1991 -- in contrast to nearby Taiwan, where lawmakers last month became the first in Asia to legalize gay marriage. Despite growing public support for gay rights, campaigners have made little headway against opposition from Hong Kong's successive pro-Beijing governments and religious conservatives. But they have started to see some success in the courts.

The latest case was brought by Angus Leung, an immigration officer who legally married his husband Scott Adams in New Zealand in 2014. When the newlyweds returned to Hong Kong, Leung applied for his husband to be granted the same medical and dental benefits available to his married heterosexual colleagues but was rebuffed. He was also unable to register for married couple tax benefits.

On Thursday, five senior judges unanimously ruled that denying the couple spousal rights for a marriage in New Zealand breached Hong Kong's anti-discrimination laws. Government lawyers said granting spousal benefits would go against Hong Kong's legal definition of marriage as being between a man and a wife. But the judges dismissed that argument.The judges also said the government's reticence contravened the civil service's own published commitment to being an equal opportunity employer.

"It was a long a stressful journey to get the result today," Leung and Adams said in a joint statement as they urged the government to end "discriminatory legislation". "Today's unanimous judgment is huge step forward for equality in Hong Kong," added Man-kei Tam, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.  "It is outrageous that LGBTI people in Hong Kong continue to have to go to court in order to force the authorities to treat their relationships as equal".

Thursday's ruling comes after a British lesbian won the right for her partner to be granted a spousal visa in Hong Kong last year. The two rulings will now make it harder for Hong Kong authorities to reject legally recognized same-sex marriages conducted overseas. Last week a judge ruled that a series of archaic laws criminalizing certain gay sex acts were unconstitutional.

Hong Kong's lower courts are currently hearing a challenge from a Hong Kong woman who wants to enter into a civil partnership with her female partner. And a separate case has been lodged by two Hong Kong men directly challenging the same-sex marriage ban itself as unconstitutional.--AFP