If there is one country in Europe that is seen as being quintessentially Catholic, it is Ireland. That country has for a long time long had it policies determined largely by church doctrine and also had its government cover up the horrendous abuses of the church. It is really quite remarkable how recently they have moved to give people even minimal sexual freedoms.
Condoms were not widely available without a prescription in Ireland until 1985, so it was common for women to travel across the border to Northern Ireland — part of the U.K. — to purchase contraception. Sodomy wasn’t decriminalized until 1993, 26 years after it was legalized in England. Voters rejected a referendum to allow divorce in 1986, and it took almost another 10 years before it was finally approved by the narrowest of margins.
The country legalized divorce in 1995 by the slimmest of margins of 1%. It also introduced civil partnerships, as distinct from marriage, for same-sex couples just five years ago. And yet on Friday, it is in Ireland that for the first time in the world, that might vote in a referendum to make same-sex marriage legal. The referendum results are expect on Saturday morning (Irish time).
After 20 years of fights in the U.S. and around the world, this is the first time LGBT rights activists have locked horns with conservatives in a battle for the direct support of an entire nation. Several eastern European countries have held referendums to bar same-sex couples from marrying, but Ireland is the first country to ask its electorate to vote on whether to establish marriage equality. A win would counter the criticism from conservatives that marriage equality has been imposed by elites over the will of the people. But a defeat could embolden a growing movement in eastern Europe that wants to enact constitutional bans against marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Early opinion polls suggested an easy victory with 78% saying they were in favor of same-sex marriage but that gap has narrowed as the referendum approaches with polls over the weekend giving the yes vote in the range of 53% to 69%. Supporters are uneasy, worried that there might be a largely silent no vote that can be activated by a determined effort by the Catholic Church and groups like the US-based National Organization of Marriage (NOM). Immigrant evangelical Christians and their church pastors are also pulling out all the stops to urge their bigoted followers to vote no. The shaky status of opinion polls that were exposed in the UK elections is also a factor contributing to the yes campaigners warning their supporters not be complacent.
The strategy of opponents seems to be taken from the NOM playbook that seemed to work in their campaign to pass Proposition 8 in California in 2008. Polls suggested that it was likely to fail but it passed at the last minute because of a concerted effort by Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals. In Ireland, opponents of same-sex marriage are once again trotting out their main scare tactic, the supposed harm done to children, an argument that not only does not make any sense but has been debunked by many sociological studies.
If the referendum does pass, then this can be seen as yet another symptom of the end of Catholic Ireland. I have remarked on the recent Pew survey that showed the sharp rise of the nonreligious in the US, jumping from 16.1 to 22.8% in just seven years. In Ireland, the change has been even more dramatic with the number of people describing themselves as religious dropping from 69% to 47% in that same period.
Fellow FtB blogger Aiofe lives in Ireland and is all over this story and has got a lot of guest bloggers contributing. You should check out her site Consider the Tea Cosy for ongoing coverage of this issue.