DUBLIN — Opponents of a referendum that would recognize “gay marriage” in Ireland face an uphill fight, but one commentator says they can win if people are willing to speak up and focus on the need for children to have a mother and a father.
“I think civil marriage is a really critical institution for upholding the common good — specifically the good of children being raised by their own mother and father in a lifelong committed relationship,” said Ben Conroy, a spokesperson for the Iona Institute, an Irish NGO focused on civil society and religion.
He said redefining marriage would remove from the Republic of Ireland’s constitution “any idea that there’s anything special, or unique, or worth protecting about a child being raised by their mother and father.”
“In fact, it’ll abolish the notion that there’s anything particularly special about motherhood and fatherhood at all, only ‘parenthood’,” he continued.
The referendum would amend the Republic of Ireland’s constitution to read, “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”
The vote on the referendum will be held on May 22, with voter registration closing on May 5.
Conroy told CNA that opponents of the referendum are “definitely the underdogs,” according to opinion polls.
However, he characterized referendum support as “very soft.” He said most voters who currently favor the referendum have reservations about it, and almost all voters still appear to believe that a child is best adopted by a man and a woman in preference to other situations.
He noted that a marriage referendum in Slovenia showed a large majority in favor of redefining marriage in the campaigns ahead of the election, only to lose on Election Day.
“The question is whether or not we can get the message about the connection between marriage and the family across, in the face of a ‘Yes’ campaign that has overwhelming support in the media and elite Ireland,” Conroy said. “They’re determined to argue that this is just about love and equality, but I think that’s completely wrong, not to mention quite short-sighted.”
Conroy said voters in the Republic Ireland should consider Article 41 of the Constitution, which the referendum would change, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which considers marriage as part of the right to “found a family.”
“Marriage in Irish and international law has never just been about two people who love each other: it’s always been a child-centered institution,” Conroy explained.
“I think a lot of Irish people would prefer to see a better way of recognizing the legal equality of gay people without obliterating a child’s right to a mother and father.”
Conroy said many referendum opponents suffer social pressure and even a “climate of fear,” given that an Irish Times writer has called for the creation of a “homophobia watchdog” to monitor rhetoric surrounding the referendum. What Conroy characterized as “social media mobs” can also target those who do not agree with the referendum.
However, he noted that there are situations where opponents of the referendum are in the majority but in fact believe themselves to be alone until someone speaks up.
“Talk to people!” Conroy advised referendum opponents. “Tell them you think every child, gay or straight, deserves the love of a mother and father where possible.”
Conroy warned that there is no conscience clause in the referendum to allow bakers, florists, printers and others to avoid participating in ceremonies to which they object. He believes that legal cases involving these businesses will become more common, as they have in other places.
In Northern Ireland, a baker who declined to make a cake saying “Support Gay Marriage” was sued by the country’s Equality Commission, even though the U.K. country does not recognize same-sex civil marriage.
“I think that’s a harbinger of things to come if this passes,” Conroy said.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has said that Catholic schools will be expected to teach children that in Ireland people “will have the right to get married irrespective of their sexual orientation.”
For Conroy, that was “a pretty huge step” that he doesn’t think people have adequately considered.
“We’ve come a very long way in the level of love we show our brothers and sisters who are gay, and it’s only a very tiny number of people who don’t welcome that wholeheartedly,” he added.
“But marriage is a particular institution, with particular purposes, and children — gay and straight — do have a right to a mother and father where possible. There shouldn’t be a contradiction there, and I don’t think there is.”
The Republic of Ireland’s four main political parties all support the referendum. They and campaign groups like Yes Equality intend to spend almost $750,000 to promote it, the Irish Times reports. The main opponent of the referendum, Mothers and Fathers Matter, hopes to spend about $160,000.
In a March 10 statement, Ireland’s Catholic bishops said they could not support the referendum.
“The effects of this proposed amendment will be far-reaching for this and for future generations,” they said. “We say to all voters: Marriage is important — Reflect before you change it.”
They voiced concern that if the Constitution is amended, “it will become increasingly difficult to speak any longer in public about marriage as being between a man and a woman.”
“What will we be expected to teach children in school about marriage? Will those who sincerely continue to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman be forced to act against their conscience?” they asked.
Ireland’s Catholic bishops could consider withdrawing from registering civil marriages if the referendum passes, given that the Church’s view of marriage and the state’s view will be “radically different,” Martin Long, a bishops’ spokesman, said April 13, according to the Irish Times. Almost 60% of registered Irish marriages in 2014 resulted from Catholic Church ceremonies.
More information about the defense of marriage effort in Ireland is available at keepmarriage.org/.