By Viera Striskova, University of Geneva
It’s definitely not the first time that the majority population is going to speak out on minorities’ rights. In the last century, men were asked to approve female suffrage, older voters accepted referendums lowering the voting age and now, another majority – this time heterosexual, will decide about the civil, social and legal future of homosexual relations.
Referendums are legitimate means for people to bring a question of public interest to legislators. It can be used as a weapon in cases where a part of society imposes a model that divides it into the ‘us’ and the ‘them’, or, it can be used a solution to confirm a social agreement on an issue after a long inclusive debate. After last year’s referendum in Croatia, 2015 will see two prominent referenda on the homosexual minority: one in Slovakia and the other in Ireland. While both countries are members of the European Union as well as predominantly Catholic, their societal attitudes towards same-sex marriage are very different.
On February 7th, the Slovak electorate will participate for the first time in its history in a Human Rights Referendum. The referendum will most likely not be successful because it requires more than 50% of the electorate to participate (around 2.1 million of Slovak voters must take part in a referendum), independently of the number of yes or no votes, which has only happened once in Slovakia – during the referendum on the membership to the EU. According to the polls, the majority of Slovaks will stay at home on Saturday the 7th because the referendum does not suggest any new legislative reforms, resulting in an unsuccessful referendum that did not only cost a lot of money but also served to divide public opinion. So the result might be negative for the referendum initiators, but the current campaign has yielded negative consequences for all of Slovak society. Stigmatization and hate speech heard from the “YES” campaign has only fostered deep mistrust among Slovak families. In the Republic of Ireland, same-sex couples have been able to enter a civil partnership since January 2011. Since then – for 4 years – not only LGBTI campaigners but also large public audiences have discussed and debated whether or not same-sex marriage should have the same rights and obligations as heterosexual marriage. The Irish referendum, to be held in May 2015, not only means that Irish society could recognize marriage equality for all minorities but the use of discussions also represents ways in which mature societies should engage in a dialogue about the rights of others. Moreover, the referendum’s main question is to grant and extend rights for everyone. Ireland has shown a great example of a referendum process that has been used as a means of discussion towards finding a solution in order to have inclusion for minorities’ civil rights.
However, in Slovakia, the referendum was proposed by a conservative association which shelters other smaller pro-life and traditional-value oriented organizations. Alliance for the Family declares that the family is in peril and so in order to protect it, they created a referendum which does not propose any amendments to current legal system. They collected more than 400,000 signatures to make people re-affirm a legal status quo and, above all, do not allow any kind of evolution in social-legal standards. Indeed, its organizers claim that the referendum does not aim to challenge the current legal system but they feel that this might change, and they want to ensure that “traditional families” are protected by law. While their goal is to protect the (traditional) family, the word “family” is missing from proposed referenda questions. While they say that the “traditional” family is in crisis; the divorce rate is almost 50% and still rising, there are more and more single parents, and young people prefer living together freely rather than tying the knot. The current Slovak legal framework does not allow for same-sex marriage or civil partnership, same-sex couples cannot adopt and legally they do not have any rights or obligations towards their partners; resulting in, for example, denied medical access for a live-in same-sex partner, inheritance problems, lack of presumption of common income, etc. Excluding same-sex marriage results in discrimination in other areas of life, from access to goods and services to legal protection of their lifestyle.
With the referendum, Alliance for the Family did not create a space for public discussion about sexual minorities but instead, it’s campaign incites intolerance and hatred within society. In fact, the first question of the referendum: Do you agree that only a bond between one man and one woman can be called marriage? Was already answered by the Slovak Parliament in June 2014 when the governing party SMER (self-declared socialist party) with KDH (Christian Democratic Movement) amended the Slovak constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, effectively closing the door to same-sex marriage and stirring protests among rights groups. If we consider the constitution as the supreme law which also represents the higher moral aspirations of a territory, asking this question once again in a public plebiscite is legally and morally meaningless. The second question reads: Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups should not be allowed to adopt and raise children? Again, this repeats the current status quo and no one in Slovakia has heard that the legislative power would like to change it. The referendum’s third question: Do you agree that schools cannot require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behavior or euthanasia if their parents don’t agree? According to the organizers of the referendum, for the moment anything can be taught in Slovak schools; which means they are preemptively ensuring that there is no room for educational experimentation. Once again, it is a question that does not resolve anything and only creates a feeling that society should be afraid of future amoral changes that the parliament may or may not include in the educational system for children. The last question (number three at the original proposal): Do you agree that no other cohabitation of persons other than marriage should be granted particular protection, rights and duties that the legislative norms as of March 1, 2014 only grant to marriage and to spouses (mainly acknowledgement, registration, or recording as a life community in front of a public authority, the possibility to adopt a child by the spouse of a parent)? was declared to be an unconstitutional proposal due to the possible collision of human rights by the Constitutional Court. Many adversaries of the referendum think that all 4 questions should have been rejected by the Constitutional Court, since according to the Slovak Constitution, basic rights cannot be subject to a referendum (art. 93.3) at all.
Referendums are legitimate ways in democratic regimes to show public concerns, however, human rights and minorities rights should not have to wait to be approved by the majority population. Instead, minorities need to be provided special protections to ensure their rights—by rule of law and institutions that cannot be hijacked by popular passions. The upcoming Slovak referendum is similar to the 2008 popular proposition regarding same-sex marriage in California, which succeeded in defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. However, the California public vote was overthrown by the United States’ Supreme Court which declared the proposition as unconstitutional, resulting in protection of rights of minorities by the judicial pillar of democratic regimes.
In my opinion, the current situation in Slovakia needs to be changed, as there are many families composed of one biological parent, his/her partner and their children living in legal limbo. In addition, Slovakia has one of the highest rates of abandoned children in Europe and foster homes are overcrowded. I am convinced that every child needs a family where s/he will find love and compassion; those should be the criteria important when a person or a couple want to adopt a child. The number of unmarried couples living together, including same-sex couples will be present in the society independently of the result of the referendum and members of these families will live without any legal protection as it has been until now, and this referendum will not change it. Unfortunately, the referendum’s “YES” campaign has been successful in ensuring that change will not come to Slovakia any time soon. Moreover, the campaign has brought hateful statements from both parts, supporters of the referendum claim that homosexuals are pedophiles and want to adopt children to pervert them, they use words such as ‘culture of death’ and create panic and fear in society. The opponents of the referendum call to ignore the referendum or participation and voting ‘no’ for all three measures, although they are less radical, they blame the Church for inciting the hatred and say that the real pedophiles are clergy members. Using negative generalizations is not the right tool for discussion. There is an informational fight, however, and information is not always fact. We should take advantage of living in an informational era, but be critical and choose trustworthy sources of information so we assess facts and not urban legends. Myths and stories from unknown authors are often products of frustrated, scared, and hateful people that need to validate their lifestyle as the ‘correct one’ by banning those that may be different. Frustration incites hatred and hatred incites aggression; let’s be more tolerant and stop this vicious cycle that only causes pain.