by Laura Smith-Spark
Ireland is holding a landmark vote Friday on whether to change the constitution to allow same-sex marriage.
If the referendum is passed, Ireland will become the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage through a popular vote.
When they go to the polls, Ireland’s voters will be asked to approve this statement: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”
If more say “yes” than say “no,” the change to the constitution will give gay and lesbian couples the right to civil marriage, but not to be wed in a church.
As in many other countries around the world, the issue is a polarizing one. And the referendum will be a test of whether in Ireland, a majority Catholic nation, more liberal thinking wins out over conservative, traditional leanings.
Opinion polls in the run-up to the vote suggest the “yes” vote is on track to come out on top — but that the gap is narrowing.
A Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes Poll published Sunday indicted 63 percent of those surveyed supported the change, with 26 percent opposed and 11 percent undecided. That represented a 10 percent drop in support for the measure since March.
An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll last week suggested 70 percent of voters who had made up their minds on the issue were in favor of the change to the constitution, and only 30 percent opposed. The poll did not include those who were undecided, which came to 17 percent of respondents.
Irish Prime Minister (or Taoiseach) Enda Kenny told TV3’s “Ireland AM” program last week that he believed the referendum would be close but that he was “confident it will be passed.”
Speaking this week, Kenny confirmed he himself would be voting yes. He added that the country could “create history” and that a “yes” vote would “obliterate” prejudice along with irrational fears of difference.
Any change to the constitution has to be put to a referendum. The decision to put the question to the vote in the first place was born out of consultation with members of the public.
In other countries that allow same-sex marriage, the decision was made by the government or the courts.
‘About civil marriage equality’
Ireland’s “Yes” campaign has been spearheaded by an umbrella group called Yes Equality, established by gay rights campaign groups, with the backing of civic society groups and grassroots campaigners across the country.
It also has the support of Ireland’s political parties.
The right to civil partnership for same-sex couples in Ireland was introduced in 2010. But on its website, Yes Equality argues that it differs significantly from marriage in the level of recognition and protection it affords to same-sex couples and their families.
“Civil partnership is a separate and unequal institution, available only to same-sex couples. It does not provide constitutional protection, nor does it provide certainty for next of kin including in medical situations,” it states.
The outcome of the referendum won’t have any bearing on surrogacy or adoption rights, it says.
It also represents no threat to religious freedom, it says. “The referendum is about civil marriage equality. Churches will be able to continue with religious ceremonies and will not be required to conduct wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples.”
Allowing lesbian and gay people to get married will have no impact on anyone else’s marriage, the group says.
“Irish people are fair-minded, welcoming and confident. This referendum is about making our laws reflect those values.”
‘Threat to religious freedom’
Opposition has been largely organized by Catholic groups
A video produced by one such group, Mandate for Marriage, argues that “redefining marriage” is a global threat to religious freedom pushed by “homosexual activists” and has been rejected by voters elsewhere, including some states in the U.S.
It also posits that redefining marriage is bad for parents and children. “Without exception, every child reared by a same-sex couple is denied either a father or a mother,” the narrator states.
The Catholic Church, while its position in Ireland has been eroded by a series of child sex abuse scandals involving the clergy, still wields considerable influence with more traditional sectors of society.
While the Church has not told churchgoers which way to vote, Catholic bishops sent out letters at the weekend to be read out at Mass in their parishes.
In his note, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, urged voters to “consider very carefully the profound implications” the constitutional change might have for families and the nation’s understanding of parenthood.
“I know that the severity with which the Irish Church treated gay and lesbian people in the past — and in some cases still today — makes it difficult for some to understand the Church’s position,” he said.
“The change is not simply about extending marriage rights to others; it is not just a debate about religious views; it is a fundamental change in the philosophy which underpins cohesion in society and thus affects and concerns every citizen.”
Martin also recalled that in the debates around same-sex marriage in Argentina, Pope Francis had made clear he was opposed to it, but “he was consistent in telling people not to make judgements on any individual.”
Gay cake row
The divisive nature of the issue came to forefront in neighboring Northern Ireland this week, where a bakery lost a high-profile discrimination case after refusing to bake a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage is not legal in Northern Ireland, but it is in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Other nations to allow gay marriage include Canada, Brazil, Argentina, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Finland, New Zealand and South Africa.
Gay marriage is also legal in parts of Mexico and the United States. U.S. Supreme Court justices are due to give their ruling in June on whether states are required to license same-sex marriages and recognize those nuptials performed in other jurisdictions.
Journalist Peter Taggart contributed to this report.