On May 22, 2015, Ireland made history by becoming the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. In a nation which is considered to be the most socially conservative in western Europe, having only decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, legalized divorce in 1995, and abortion remains illegal in all but life threatening circumstances, Irish voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing same-sex marriage by a nearly 2-1 vote. In addition, every major political party supported same-sex marriage.
So what had led a nation which had been described as a “theocracy all but in name” to take such a dynamic liberal shift? Many observers site the Catholic Church’s loss of moral authority due to multiple abuse scandals and cover-ups. Others attribute it to a desire to break from the authoritarian control of the Church. While there may be many reasons for this monumental shift in public acceptance of marriage equality in Ireland, the younger voters in particular appear overwhelmingly in favor of it.
As we in the United States await a judicial decision on same-sex marriage, many critics, as well as members of the judiciary, believe that the public has not accepted the idea of same-sex marriage yet, and that it should be left up to a democratic vote as opposed to the courts. Just as in Ireland, a majority in the United States now support same-sex marriage, but due to the dual federalist nature of our government, passing a constitutional amendment securing marriage equality is unlikely. In WA, MN, IL, VT, NY, NH, HI, RI, CT, DE, ME, MD, and DC, either the legislatures or voters in a direct ballot have approved same-sex marriage, but in order to pass a constitutional amendment, the amendment would need to be initiated and approved by Congress and ratified by three fourths of the state legislatures. That would mean only thirteen states, regardless of their population, could block a constitutional amendment if it were to be approved by Congress. Currently, there are thirteen states which ban same-sex marriage.
While it is right to question whether or not the public had accepted same-sex marriage, and if the courts have improperly taken this issue out of the sphere of the democratic process, the overriding question is whether or not the laws in several states unjustly deny certain rights to individuals based on either their sex, or their sexual orientation. The court had properly taken racial discrimination out of the voter’s hands when such curtailment of rights did not serve any legitimate government purpose and was injurious to a class of people. By the 1950’s many U.S. institutions had been desegregated, and the public in most states had accepted it, yet the Supreme Court still had to rule to eliminate state sponsored segregation in the south. If in 1954, a constitutional amendment banning racial segregation was initiated, it would likely have failed approval by Congress, and certainly have not been ratified by three fourths of the states.
The people of Ireland have certainly made history, and it shows that perceptions can change even in areas that have held strong socially conservative views. While a casual observer would ask “why can’t we just do that here?” due to the way our government is configured, we would need to have the same result at least 38 times. Marriage Equality in the United States had won in the ballot box and in the legislature thirteen times as of today, but just as in 1954, it is not too early to do what is right.