The expansion of equality laws and the adoption in Ireland of a ‘modern equality code’ (to borrow from former Minister for Justice, Mr Dermot Ahern T.D.), has addressed many of the inequalities that perpetuated discrimination and prejudice in Ireland – but not all. The introduction of civil partnership in Ireland was an important step towards a more equal regime of relationship recognition, but it did not secure either formal or substantive equality in law for gay and lesbian communities in Ireland.
Extending and opening up civil marriage to same sex couples seeks to bring an end to legally sanctioned discrimination, by providing constitutional recognition to same sex relationships. As the campaign posters note, it does nothing more, and nothing less.
As Ireland’s National Human Rights Institution, and National Equality Body, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has expressed its view that ‘the opening out of civil marriage to two persons without distinction as to their sex is a matter of equality and human rights.’ Recognising that marriage is celebrated in Ireland as ‘a key part of an individual’s and a family’s participation in the social and cultural life of the State’, the Commission concludes that the current constitutional position relating to marriage does ‘not provide full recognition and equality of status for same-sex couples’.
Fundamentally, this referendum is about equal recognition, and about the normative, symbolic and practical value of constitutional texts and equality guarantees. The significance of such recognition has been recognized by many constitutional courts worldwide. The Canadian Supreme Court, in Egan v Canada, has held that ending discrimination is fundamentally about ‘recognition’. Excluding same sex couples from marriage, they held, perpetuates the view that same sex relationships are less worthy of recognition than different sex relationships.
In the United States v Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court pointed out that in providing legal recognition to the Canadian marriage of Ms Windsor and her spouse, the State of New York had ‘enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection’ of same sex couples.
These statements were echoed in the Irish High Court in Zappone and Galligan, where Dunne J noted – in a comment that remains very relevant today:
‘…there are two individuals at the heart of this case who have spoken eloquently of the sense of social exclusion they feel by virtue of being denied entry to the institution of marriage.’
The words of Marshall C.J. in the Massachusetts case, Goodridge, were also extensively cited by the High Court:
Recognising the right of an individual to marry a person of the same sex will not diminish the validity or dignity of opposite sex marriage,…. If anything, extending civil marriage to same sex couples reinforces the importance of marriage to individuals and communities.
In Minister of Home Affairs and Another v Fourie and Another, the South African Constitutional Court stated that denying same sex couples the right to marry, negated their right to self-definition ‘in a most profound way’.
These are not abstract judicial statements. They recognise the everyday injuries and harms, caused by legally sanctioned exclusions from the institutions that function as markers of equality and recognition in Irish society.
The words of CJ Warren in Loving v Virginia are often cited in debates on marriage equality, and rightly so:
‘The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.
The ‘unsupportable’ racial classifications impugned in the proceedings before the Court were he said, ‘directly subversive of the principle of equality’. There can be, he said, ‘no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification’. In the forthcoming referendum, we are being asked to rewrite the text, and to dismiss the invidious and subversive distinctions that limit recognition of the equal worth of same sex relationships.
Gender, and the regulation of gender roles within the family remains at the heart of the referendum debate, though less attention has been paid to this aspect of the campaigns to date. In the 1873 Supreme Court case of Bradwell v. Illinois, Justice Bradley stated clearly the link between women’s societal roles and the institution of marriage:
“The civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman …..The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood.”
As Judge Bradley’s quote indicates, the marital family was defined by distinct and hierarchical roles across gender. The ideology of separate spheres that underlies Judge Bradley’s statement continues to be reflected in the Irish Constitution – in the gendered reference to “women’s duties in the home” and in legislative exclusions of same sex couples from the institution of civil marriage. Such gendered divisions are appealed to yet again, in this referendum, as they have frequently been in Submissions to UN human rights treaty bodies, and in resistance to constitutional and legislative change.
The Child and Family Relationships Act 2015 is a significant step towards securing the best interests and rights of all children and families in this State. The (much delayed) coming into force of the 31st Amdt to the Constitution gives constitutional recognition to the best interests of the child. These constitutional and legislative protections for children will not be diminished if marriage equality is introduced into Irish law, contrary to the views expressed in several confusing and confused statements about the forthcoming marriage referendum. If anything, the rights of children and the constitutional protections of family life will only be strengthened by a move towards a more inclusive and equal society, and by the constitutional recognition of an equal right to marry for same sex couples.