The decision by the Cabinet to propose a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage for referendum in 2015 is to be warmly welcomed. As is the promise by Taoiseach Enda Kenny that he will personally campaign for the change. The current prohibition represents a significant and unacceptable discrimination against the gay community.
Its repeal will mark an important final stage on the State’s road from the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1993 to the full recognition of the worth and validity of gay relationships, on the road from fear, repression and stigmatisation, to an open and more generous society saying to those still in fear of coming out that we willingly recognise that homosexuality represents just part of the rich tapestry of human relationships whose variety we cherish.
The decision follows endorsement in July by the constitutional convention by 78 per cent. An Ipsos MRBI poll for The Irish Times last June recorded 69 per cent support, with just 25 per cent against. The Government will now also bring forward legislation allowing same-sex couples to adopt children and regularising guardianship provisions.
If Ireland approves it we will be joining 15 other states currently recognising same-sex marriage – Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Uruguay. In England and Wales the law allowing it is due to be fully in force in 2014. And in the US, just this week, legalisation has been approved in a 15th state, Illinois.
Far from undermining or changing the nature of the institution of marriage, the move will enhance and strengthen it by recognising that the family, which it underpins with rights and responsibilities, has changed. More than 1,500 couples have secured civil partnerships in Ireland since they were introduced in 2010, and a more inclusive definition of marriage will not promote or encourage alternative lifestyles, or motherless/fatherless families, as opponents seem to suggest. It would simply accept the reality that such caring relationships, many of them with children, deserve the same protection and social and legal acknowledgment as traditional marriage.
Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin Denis Nulty insists that the debate is “not about equality” but “the importance society places on the role of mothers and fathers in bringing up children”. But, in truth, nothing in this provision in any way undermines that role.
To insist that society should privilege in its laws the idea that the crucial defining dimension of marriage consists in the procreation of children and the sexual union of man and woman is to endorse a narrow and essentially religious definition. Our Constitution must serve all of society, and, yes, protect the family, but not the family so restrictively defined.