Metro Weekly

Romania to hold referendum on whether to ban gay marriage

Kim Davis (center) and Liberty Counsel’s Harry Mihet (third from right) meet with Romanian leaders – Photo: Liberty Counsel.

Egged on by social conservatives, the Romanian government will hold a constitutional referendum on Oct. 6-7 to define marriage as solely between “a man and a woman.”

The referendum is being pushed by the ruling Social Democratic Party, whose members, including Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, have come under intense pressure from a group called the Family Coalition, which claimed to have collected more than 3 million signatures in support of a referendum, reports the online news website Emerging Europe

The government stretched the voting period over two days in an attempt to make the results binding. If the referendum fails to garner at least 30% turnout among eligible voters, it is not considered valid.

If approved, the referendum would block same-sex couples and their families from marrying or being officially recognized by the government for the foreseeable future. Any future changes, or a reversal of position, could only be achieved by holding another constitutional referendum.

Opponents of the referendum had initially decided to boycott the vote, in hopes that low turnout would invalidate the expected ban. But since the government has stretched voting across a two-day period, opponents of the change may have to resort to other measures to block such a change. 

Lawmakers have delayed pushing for a referendum since the Family Coalition began its campaign in 2016, but have been leaned on by the Orthodox church, which supports the ban, as well as by American conservative Christian groups. In August, the Social Democrats said they were finally ready to back a referendum, as were its coalition partners and chief opposition parties such as the National Liberals and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania.

Only the Save Romania Union party voted against holding the referendum, which passed the country’s Senate by a vote of 107-13. An identical resolution calling for a referendum had previously passed the Romanian Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies last year.

“This divisive referendum will solve none of Romania’s real problems,” Dan Barna, the leader of the Save Romania Union party. “The only reason the PSD wants this referendum to be held is to distract attention from its ongoing attack on the independence of the justice system.”

Iustina Ionescu, a lawyer for Accept, a Romanian LGBTQ rights group, said that the referendum will “be one of state-sponsored hatred towards gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, as well as single-parent families.”

Human rights advocates fear that if social conservatives like the Family Coalition are successful in banning gay marriage, they will likely push for future constitutional amendments, such as banning abortion, divorce, contraception, artificial insemination, vaccinations, and even sex education. The Family Coalition also opposes the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which was designed to protect women and children from domestic violence.

Liberty Counsel, the U.S.-based law firm that attempts to push legislatures and courts to adopt sweeping and overly broad interpretations of what constitutes “religious freedom,” and typically advocates for the restriction or repeal of existing LGBTQ rights, celebrated the Romanian government’s announcement.

Liberty Counsel has been among the myriad of American evangelical or conservative Christian groups pushing to approve in other countries what they thus far have been unable to accomplish stateside. Notably, the firm’s most famous client, Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis, and Harry Mihet, the group’s vice president of legal affairs and chief litigation counsel, visited Mihet’s native Romania last year, lobbying religious leaders to push lawmakers to approve a ban on same-sex marriage.

Davis, who went to jail in 2015 for contempt of court after she refused to allow her subordinates to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, told those she met in Romania that same-sex marriage was incompatible with religious freedom.

“Davis and Mihet’s message was simple: same-sex ‘marriage’ and freedom of conscience are mutually exclusive, because those who promote the former have zero tolerance for the latter,” Liberty Counsel wrote in a press release.

“I am pleased that my native country will finally have the chance to decide for itself the meaning of marriage,” Mihet said in a statement. “This referendum is long overdue. Romanians love freedom and understand the dangers of same-sex ‘marriage’ on the rights of those who do not wish to support or participate in it. I am confident that the referendum will succeed.”

Human rights group Amnesty International has joined other pro-LGBTQ groups in attempting to intervene in a case before the Romanian Constitutional Court that seeks to block the referendum. According to Amnesty, the referendum, if successful, would likely violate international human rights standards and lead to increases in anti-LGBTQ discrimination or even violence that would be overlooked by the government.

“Instead of recognizing that everyone is entitled to the same human rights and equal protection under the law, this referendum panders to homophobia and might result in constitutional changes that would violate European and international law,” said Arpi Avetisyan, a lawyer for the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, one of the pro-LGBTQ groups challenging the referendum’s constitutionality.

“If approved, these changes would be a clear backward step for Romania and would have a severe impact on the lives of families not based on marriage,” Barbora Černušáková, Amnesty International’s researcher on Romania, said in a statement.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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