Same-sex marriage debate

Have those opposed to same-sex marriage anything to fear if it is introduced?
The Irish Catholic has asked an interdisciplinary team, which includes Prof. Eamonn Conway and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove, theologians at Mary Immaculate College University of Limerick, and Mr Patrick Treacy SC of Integritas, to consider and respond to the difficult questions we all face when deciding how to vote in the referendum.
Speaking at the launch of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ campaign in favour of same-sex marriage, Aodhán O’Ríordáin TD, Minister of State at the Department of Justice, has been reported as saying (Irish Independent, 13/02/15) that “what the no side have to their great benefit is fear”.

He went on to say that supporters of the yes campaign need to use fear to guarantee the passing of the referendum, and he referred to his belief that Ireland would be humiliated internationally if the proposal was rejected. 

It doesn’t seem right to trade on people’s fears when it comes to making a decision as important as how to vote in the forthcoming referendum, a decision that needs to be taken freely in conscience. Instead, what is needed is to try, where possible, to allay fears.

Yet, in a way, as the Minister seems to be acknowledging, having fears about such a major constitutional change as the redefinition of marriage is to be expected.

After all, marriage is the institution upon which, as our Constitution states, the family is founded. What is being proposed will alter the institution of the family radically by stating that it is a matter of indifference whether the family is founded upon the marriage of two men, or two women, or a man and a woman.


In the past week, a number of the fears in regard to the redefinition of marriage have been highlighted in two important statements.

The Catholic bishops have said that if the referendum is passed it will “become increasingly difficult to speak in public about marriage as being between a man and a woman”. They note that The Children and Family Relationships Bill removes mention of mothers and fathers from a whole raft of legislation, replacing it with the gender-neutral term “spouses”. Because of this, they are concerned about what teachers may be obliged to teach about marriage in school. Teachers might find themselves being forced to act against their consciences.

We share this fear. Even in Catholic schools the State holds a position of dominance in regard to the curriculum. It is reasonable to ask whether, if the referendum is carried, teachers will be forced to teach ‘the new reality’ of gender-neutral marriage, even if Catholic parents and school boards of management have profound misgivings about it.

Religious freedom

In a separate statement, a group of clergy and lay faithful from various Christian denominations in Ireland have raised similar concerns. In fact, they have gone much further, questioning whether a yes vote will lead to a climate of intolerance and the violation of religious freedom.

This cross-denominational group, led by Bishop Ferran Glenfield, Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore, and Catholic Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin, has said that service providers such as photographers and caterers at weddings would be acting illegally if they were to decline services for same-sex weddings, even though providing these services would be contrary to their consciences. They are also of the view that chaplains working in publicly-funded institutions such as prisons and hospitals could face disciplinary action and even dismissal if they spoke of marriage as being between a man and a woman only.

The inter-Church group has also pointed out the fact that, following the introduction of same-sex marriage in Britain, faith-based adoption agencies had to close because they were not prepared to provide services to same-sex couples. 

We would add a real concern that if the referendum is passed any public servant, teacher, garda, marriage registrars, judge, who holds the sincerely held belief that same-sex unions cannot, in conscience, be truthfully called marriages, could face legal sanction and possibly dismissal if that view was to be expressed in the course of their work.

Looking to other jurisdictions, we see for instance a case in the USA where Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla, an IT company, was forced to resign in 2014 from his position as CEO after it had transpired that he had personally donated $1,000 in support of a campaign to oppose the introduction of  same-sex marriage in California some years previously. His modest donation, out of his own pocket, elicited global boycotts and protests from the LGBT community and its supporters, and eventually Eich was forced to give up his job. 

Closer to home, in Northern Ireland, the Equality Commission is taking action against Ashers Baking Company, a family business run by people who hold the view that marriage can only be contracted between a man and a woman, apparently because they refused to bake a cake with a slogan on it promoting same-sex marriage.

In jurisdictions that have legalised same-sex marriage we also hear that Church authorities can find themselves in trouble if they refuse to hire parish halls, for instance, for same-sex marriage celebrations.    


The intention of some people in voting yes in this referendum might be to try to create a more tolerant and inclusive society. In principle, this is something of which we should all be in favour.

However, as we have outlined here, there are real fears that a yes vote might, in fact, result in the opposite, that is, in a much less tolerant society. This is a real danger. As Bishop Mario Toso, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, pointed out  in a statement to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe last year: “Intolerance in the name of ‘tolerance’ must be named for what it is and publically condemned.”

The responsibility lies with those who want to redefine marriage to show that this will not be the case in Ireland.