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As a practising Catholic, I didn't always support same sex marriage – but I do now

Two things happened that changed my mind…

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

ON FRIDAY, the 22nd of May, the Irish electorate will go to the polls and be asked to approve or reject the following sentence: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” I am in favour of this proposition and will be voting Yes to marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples.

While a clear majority of Irish people in my age group, and nearly all of my colleagues in legal academia, likely arrived at this conclusion quickly and instinctively, I can’t say that this has been the case for me. Ten years ago, even five years ago, my support extended only to civil partnerships for same-sex couples. When questioned, I repeatedly and resolutely argued that marriage was exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

My position was rooted in the Catholic faith I am still proud to practice and in a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that a civil marriage shouldn’t be defined by the tenets of my religion.

A seismic shift in public opinion

I was not alone in failing to identify what’s oft been termed the “civil rights issue of our generation.” President Clinton, who infamously signed the (since partially repealed) Defence of Marriage Act prohibiting the recognition by the federal government of any same-sex marriage authorised by a state, and President Obama both initially opposed the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry before endorsing marriage equality. Although political considerations have surely played a part in informing their former and present stances, their evolution on the issue is mirrored by a seismic shift in public opinion and in the law with respect to access to marriage.

In 2003, surveys showed that only about a third of Americans believed that gay and lesbian people should be allowed to marry someone of the same sex. Opinion polls taken during the first two months of 2015 reveal that that level of support has almost doubled. At least 60% of adults in the US believe in marriage equality. My native Massachusetts became the first state to legalise same-sex marriage in 2003 via a decision of our Supreme Judicial Court. 36 other states now permit it, with much of the change in the law having taken place in the past two years.

A significant amount has been written about why this sea change has occurred in the US and elsewhere. It’s probably impossible to delineate all of the myriad reasons behind a very real movement of hearts and minds. However, I can attest as to why my own view has changed.

The first thing that changed my mind…

First, none of the dire consequences of marriage equality foretold by the naysayers have been visited upon Massachusetts since 2003. In the wake of the court ruling, these (mainly outside) groups and individuals claimed that fewer people would marry; that fewer children would be raised by a married mother and father; that more children would grow up fatherless; that birth rates would fall; that fewer people would remain monogamous and sexually faithful; and that there would be demands for legalisation of polygamy.

These alarmist assertions have, for the most part, proven wildly inaccurate. And where the naysayers haven’t been totally wrong, the trends in Massachusetts are entirely consistent with what’s happened nationally. Furthermore, it is interesting that a number of the arguments against marriage equality in Massachusetts were, just as they are in Ireland in 2015, child-centric. Yet there is not one shred of evidence that children have suffered or been disadvantaged in any way since 2003.

The fact that same-sex marriage resulted from a judicial decision was another ground for objection. We lawyers have an array of different perspectives on when judicial interpretation crosses the line and becomes judicial lawmaking. Most of us can agree, however, that it is typically better for issues involving profound moral questions to be resolved by the broader citizenry or their representatives, rather than by unelected judges. As such, it is ideal that the voters of Ireland will decide on marriage equality. And this objection in Massachusetts was fully vitiated in 2007, when the state legislature refused to approve an anti-same-sex marriage constitutional amendment.

But beyond the statistics and political and judicial wrangling, something far more important transpired in Massachusetts. Same-sex couples got married. It was no big deal. The sky did not fall in. Theirs remain a very small percentage of the overall number of marriages. Marriage equality did not affect existing marriages, nor did it stop tens of thousands of heterosexual couples from taking the plunge. It became settled law and a fact of life, and people have moved on.

The second thing that changed my mind…

The second thing that helped to change my view was my own marriage. Getting married to someone I love made me far more receptive to listening to same-sex couples who were denied the same right. Their personal stories are heartrending and compelling.

My religion discerns a difference between their love and the love between me and my wife. The Catholic Church has the right, which I would defend, to recognise and perform marriages only between persons of the opposite sex. The more I’ve thought about it, though, especially in light of the realities of Western society in 2015, I can see no valid justification for a government to similarly differentiate and deny its citizens equality of access to civil marriage on this basis.

I can empathise with voters who just aren’t sure about the forthcoming referendum. I can understand why some get irritated by over the top criticisms of the Church, or intimations that a No vote would make Ireland appear “backward,” or a sense that this is a project for an elite who don’t really care about the more mundane struggles individuals and families in this country grapple with every day. But these are quite separate matters. The referendum on 22nd May is about something else.

Simply stated, it’s about supporting equality for all. That’s why I’m convinced that voting Yes is the fair and the right thing to do.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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