THERE has been a growing resistance to the marriage equality proposal being made in next week’s Referendum and, even though the Yes side started out well ahead in the opinion polls, it looks as if the actual outcome could be a lot closer. Much will depend on which demographic is best mobilised on polling day, Friday, May 22nd.
The electorate is being asked a simple question as to whether they want the following clause added to Article 41 of the Constitution: ‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’ The proposal is an add-on to Article 41 – not a change to anything already in it – and the Constitutional status of marriage will remain the same regardless of the outcome of the Referendum.
As the Referendum Commission’s independent guide points out, detailed rules about who may or may not marry are currently set out in legislation, and will continue to be, but will obviously reflect any change the Marriage Referendum may bring about in due course. The courts have already decided that a married couple with or without children constitutes a ‘family’ in the Constitutional sense and passing the Referendum would enable people of the same sex to marry and become a family.
Posters that have been widely used by campaigners for a No vote, stating that children need a mother and a father, are disingenuous in the context of this campaign, to say the least. Indeed, one could even argue that these posters are hurtful and insulting to lone parents in particular, of either sex, who through possibly no fault of their own, maybe because of the death of a partner or absence through separation or divorce, have to bring up children on their own.
Families can be formed by so many different sets of circumstances nowadays and modern realities need to be recognised and catered for. As children don’t get to choose the family they become part of, the most important priority has to be their safety and welfare, whatever type of family unit they are in, and the Children and Family Relationships Bill, currently making its way, painfully slowly, through the Houses of the Oireachtas has been drafted to provide the appropriate protections.
One disturbing hallmark of recent Irish referendum campaigns has been the proverbial red herring, usually introduced by opponents of the proposed amendment, which muddies the waters, diverts attention away from the core issue and ultimately causes the type of confusion that it is designed to. The idea is to sow seeds of doubt in people’s minds and to try to persuade them that, if they are in doubt about the proposal, they should vote No.
They are playing on a fear of the unknown, yet 13 other European countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Spain, allow same-sex marriage and their people haven’t been smitten by some plague as a result. A Yes vote would allow for civil marriage for people here, but – exercising their existing religious freedom as at present – clergy will have the right to decline to marry specific couples.
Even with marriages between men and women at the moment, there is a growing trend away from church weddings towards civil ceremonies only. Unfortunately, there are many who fail to recognise and acknowledge that we live in an increasingly secular society and, while church leaders and their members are fully entitled to campaign and vote against same-sex marriage, those who want marriage equality are just as entitled to vote for what they believe in.
Using alarmist and unacceptable tactics to try to frighten and sway people brings insidious elements of intolerance into the debate about an issue that is advocating inclusion and – to a great extent also without being patronising – compassion, as the Marriage Referendum seeks to include a sector of society currently denied the right to marry. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Ms Frances Fitzgerald, when arguing for a Yes vote during the campaign, made a very good point: ‘Inclusion starts with respect for those with whom we passionately disagree.’
Unfortunately, as the referendum campaign begins to engage people more in its final weeks, this is not being shown by some who want to stuff their rigid beliefs down other people’s throats without any regard for tolerance of different views.
Everybody is free to vote according to their own conscience and, in examining it beforehand, people need to concentrate on the question being asked in the referendum and reflect on whether it is their place to deny a section of society the same rights as the majority are entitled to when it comes to marriage. That is the choice on offer.