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Ireland to hold same-sex marriage referendum

Irish voters to decide on changing constitutional definition of marriage

Ireland will be the first country to hold a referendum on marriage rights for same-sex couples. There are 18 nations globally that have legalized same-sex marriage, with some states in the U.S. and Mexico also allowing it.

Irish voters will decide on Friday whether or not to change the constitutional definition of marriage, allowing same-sex couples to wed. Homosexuality was illegal in Ireland until 1993, and the country began recognizing civil partnerships in 2011.

Recent polls have shown there is more than enough support in favor of same-sex marriage. According an Irish Times poll of 1,200 voters, 58 percent of respondents said they planned to vote in favor of the measure, while 25 percent planned to vote against it, with 17 percent undecided.

Gay rights campaigners say they have won the support of major political parties and that a “yes” result in the referendum would give same-sex couples more legal protection and broader social acceptance.

Last month the country’s Health Minister Leo Varadkar was the first member of the government to publicly announce that he is gay. He said the decision came from his desire to be “fully honest” with the people of Ireland.

Ireland is traditionally a deeply Roman Catholic society, with the church wielding tremendous influence. Support for the church has dropped dramatically, however, over the past three decades. The church has warned that if the vote passes, it may no longer perform the civil parts of a marriage service. That means that couples married in a Catholic ceremony would need a separate civil registration.

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, warned that the changed definition would interfere with the tradition of marriage, adding that “the union of a man or woman is open to the procreation of children.”

Anti-gay-marriage campaigners put out an advertisement saying, “You should be able to have reservations about gay marriage without being called a homophobe.”

During Al Jazeera America's Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Erica Pitzi spoke to Quentin Fottrell, an Irish journalist for The Wall Street Journal and a gay rights activist, and to Richard Socarides, a former special assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Fottrell summed up the vote by saying, “It basically enshrines marriage for same-sex couples in the constitution, which currently does not exist. This is really about ensuring that the children of same-sex couples have the same rights, legal protections and constitutional protections as those of parents of the opposite sex.”

Socarides said, “A lot of it depends on how these issues develop politically. In Ireland, there’s no legal requirement that the issue be put to a public referendum. We [in the U.S.] don’t really have national referendums. The closest thing we have in the United States would be an effort to amend the U.S. Constitution, and some people have talked about amending the Constitution to prohibit gay marriage. But we don’t usually like to put people’s civil rights up for a public referendum.”

Fottrell said the “yes” campaign in Ireland has been extraordinarily well organized. “Tens of thousands of Irish people have emigrated since 2008, since the Great Recession. Upward of 70 percent of them are in their 20s, who would naturally skew towards more liberal causes. Although the polls suggest that it will be a “yes” vote, it will really depend on a high turnout on the day.”

Socarides agreed but said he believes the poll will be closer than people expect.

A “yes” outcome would change the social future of Ireland. Fottrell said, “This will send a huge message to the [gay and lesbian] children of Ireland that their relationships are just as important as a straight kid.”

“No matter what the result, people will understand people better afterwards,” said Socarides. “It’s important because Ireland is an important country politically. It’s an important country in the EU, and this sends an important message.”

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