UPDATE: A referendum approving an amendment to the Irish constitution which will legalize same sex marriage has passed by a large margin, as early polls had predicted. The only surprise is how well the "yes" vote did across all segments of Irish society.
Many had predicted a generational divide, but support for "yes" cut across age and gender, geography and income, early results showed.
Ireland appears on the verge tonight of becoming the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Before the public today was a referendum that would endorse or deny a proposed amendment to the constitution of Ireland to mandate provision for same-sex marriage. The referendum’s vote counting will begin Saturday morning in Ireland.
The Catholic Church in Ireland has opposed the measure though a number of individual priests have gone on the record encouraging a “yes” vote. Last month a spokesperson for the church even suggested that Ireland's Catholic bishops might decide that their priests should decline to perform civil aspects of weddings if the referendum on same-sex marriage is passed, meaning couples wanting to get married in the church would have to attend a separate civil ceremony. "If the referendum is passed, the church's view and the state's view of marriage will be radically different," he explained. "It's reasonable that the bishops may decide to separate the two," referring to church and civil ceremonies. About 60 percent of the marriages in Ireland are celebrated in Catholic churches.
Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin took the unusual step on May 6 of explaining his “no” position: “For me the fundamental question is about the complementarity of men and women, of male and female, in the nature of humanity…. Why do humans exist as male and female? Is that distinction simply marginal? Is it simply a social construct?
“One of the big challenges in human rights theory is a tendency by some to absolutize an individual right, overlooking the fact that all rights can only be exercised within the context of the right of others and in an understanding of relationships that exist within society,” he said. “We are not isolated individuals. That we exist as male and female is not a marginal dimension of being human.”
Responding to those who argue the church in Ireland should restrain itself to the “religious” sphere and stay out of secular discussions such as same-sex marriage, the archbishop said, “We should not forget that so much of what is cherished as good in secular society is, in fact, the fruit of Christian culture.”
Polls running up to the referendum today showed a majority of voters favored a constitutional amendment to expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. The margins are wide with “yes” votes running as high as 75 percent to 27 percent support for “no” in one survey. Despite that gulf, some pollsters, perhaps chastened by how badly they predicted the outcome of the recent U.K. elections, insist voter turnout will still be key.
Young people may support same-sex marriages by overwhelming percentages, but it is often older voters, trending more to “no,” who actually turn in their ballots. Reports late Friday night indicate a historic voter turnout in Ireland. According to the BBC, in Dublin, Limerick and Waterford turnout was higher than 60 percent of the electorate, while in Cork, Carlow, Kilkenny, Donegal, Tipperary, Kerry and Galway it was above 50 percent. Ireland does not allow voting by absentee ballot and in recent days thousands of Irish citizens had been streaming into the country from overseas to take part in the vote.
The apparent popular indifference to the church’s resistance to the “yes” vote is another indication of how far the cultural reach of the church has fallen in Ireland and how quickly the civil rights demands of gay and lesbian couples have come to be accepted by the wider society. The voting public similarly ignored the church’s resistance to the legalization of divorce in Ireland in 1995.
Commentators attribute the church’s stunning fall from grace in the Irish public’s eyes to the years of social unraveling—the church had once been a more-or-less all-powerful, unifying cultural force in the Republic—compelled by the relentlessly horrendous clerical sex abuse crisis and the cover-up of the same by church leaders. The extension of marriage rights and other social privileges to gay and lesbian people has been accelerating at a remarkable pace around the world. That phenomenon has been accompanied by a clear generational divergence. Homosexuality was legalized less than 20 years ago in Ireland; now a generation coming of age in Ireland seems genuinely perplexed by their elders’ resistance to the idea of same-sex marriages.
Though Ireland would be the first nation to endorse same sex marriage as a civil right by a national referendum, 20 other nations, many in Western Europe, have already legislatively endorsed legal same-sex marriages. Netherlands lead the way in 2000. Ireland’s nearest neighbors—Wales, England and Scotland—already allow same-sex marriage. In the United States, just 13 states maintain a ban on same-sex unions and the issue may soon be resolved on a national level by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected in June.