Irish Republic Votes for Marriage Equality

A proposal to amend Ireland’s Constitution was approved by 62.07% of the voters in a referendum held on May 22, 2015.  The amendment states: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”   Implementation will require action by the Parliament and President, which is expected to follow as a matter of course.  Legislation will set the date when same-sex couples can begin marrying. The vote made Ireland the first country in the world to amend its constitution through popular vote to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Forty-two out of the nation’s 43 constituencies (voting districts) produced majority support for the amendment, which received 48.58% of the vote in the sole outlier district, Roscommon-South Leitrim.  The measure captured more than 70% of the vote in the dozen constituencies in Dublin, the nation’s capital, largest municipality and center of LGBT activity in the country.  All political parties supported the proposal, the only significant organized opposition coming from Roman Catholic Church leaders.  Even the church leaders took a relatively moderate position, and some priests actually stated support for the measure as a pragmatic recognition of social change.  The measure relates only to civil marriage, and will not require religious bodies to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Homosexual acts were criminalized in Ireland under the United Kingdom’s Offences Against the Person Act in 1861.  The Republic of Ireland retained the British criminal provisions upon achieving independence in 1922.  A literary scholar, David Norris, mounted a challenge to the anti-gay criminal laws in the Irish courts in the 1970s, claiming that they violated the Irish constitution, but he was rebuffed in the national courts.  He appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1988 that Ireland was violating the right to privacy of its gay citizens and, after extended debate, the Irish Parliament agreed in 1993 to decriminalize private consensual gay sex.  Soon thereafter, efforts began to get the government to recognize the civil rights of gay people affirmatively.  In 1998, Ireland outlawed anti-gay employment discrimination, although it exempted religious organizations from complying.  In 2000, the Equal Status Act extended anti-discrimination requirements to businesses and government programs.  In 2010, the Parliament enacted a Civil Partnership law, providing for marriage-style contractual status for same-sex couples.  A Constitutional Convention in 2013 advised the government to amend the constitution to allow for same-sex marriages, finding that civil partnerships were insufficient to provide equal rights to gay people, and the government responded by proposing the constitutional amendment that was approved by voters on May 22, 2105.

Voter turn-out was high for an election that did not involve candidates running for office, with slightly over 60% of the registered voters casting ballots.  Of the 1,949,725 ballots cast, 13,818 were rejected as invalid. 1,201,607 votes were cast in favor of the amendment and 734,300 were cast against.

Same-sex couples first won the right to marry in The Netherlands in 2001.  Belgium followed in 2003, Canada and Spain in 2005 (although some Canadian provinces allowed marriages as early as 2003), South Africa in 2006, Norway and Sweden in 2009, Argentina, Iceland and Portugal in 2010, Denmark in 2012, Brazil, England and Wales, France, New Zealand and Uruguay in 2013, and Luxembourg and Scotland in 2014.  Finland has legislated for same-sex marriage, but the measure will not go into effect until 2017.  In the United States, same-sex marriage first became available in Massachusetts in 2004.  Litigation, legislative action and most notably some state public referenda in 2012 have led to same-sex marriage being available in 37 states and the District of Columbia as of May 2015, and in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the federal government’s refusal to recognize lawfully-contracted same-sex marriages.  The Supreme Court heard arguments on April 28, 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges, presenting the question whether same-sex couples have a right to marry under 14th Amendment due process and/or equal protection principles, and it is widely anticipated that the Court will rule by the end of its current term on June 29, 2015, that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in the United States.  In Mexico same-sex marriage is available in several states and the capital district, courts in most of the country’s states have granted individual petitions for marriage licenses brought by same-sex couples, and the Mexican Supreme Court has recently taken a case for review that may end up making same-sex marriage more widely available; that court has already ruled that lawfully contracted same-sex marriages must be recognized throughout the country.  New York Times, Associated Press, Freedom to Marry website.

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