Ireland moves ahead on gay marriage. Will the rest of Europe follow suit?

Irish lawmakers passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage Thursday, enabling gay weddings to begin taking place as early as mid-November. 

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters/File
People react as Ireland voted in favor of allowing same-sex marriage in a historic referendum, in Dublin May 23, 2015. Ireland became the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by popular vote as 62 percent of the electorate backed a referendum, official results showed.

In what some Irish officials are calling a historic day for democracy, lawmakers in Ireland passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage Thursday, now only requiring the signature of President Michael Higgins to be set into law.

Clearance of the bill comes months after a referendum in May, when nearly two-thirds of Irish voters passed the motion in the world’s first such ballot.

Officials say that same-sex weddings will be able to start taking place as early as mid-November, reports The Irish Independent.

“Today is a joyous day,’’ said Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, calling the occasion a marker of a new Ireland.

But while the country celebrates, Independent Senator David Norris said the work does not end in Ireland.

“We can relax here but we can’t relax for our brothers and sisters throughout the world,” he told the Irish Times.

Ireland, “a country where some 85 percent of the population identify as Roman Catholic, and where the church was an unassailable institution for decades,” stunned the international community when it overwhelmingly voted “yes” this summer, reported The Christian Science Monitor’s Jason Walsh.

The nation’s integrated economy led to a more “young, upbeat, and cosmopolitan” country that, with its latest vote, will ultimately bring constitutional change, he wrote.

The path may not be as simple with its international neighbors.

Of the 20 countries around the world that have legalized gay marriage, more than two-thirds are in Europe, according to the Pew Research Center. These include Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, and all of Scandinavia. Ireland’s decision to legalize this year makes it the 14th European nation to do so.

“Yet two of the biggest Western European states – Germany and Italy – do not allow gays and lesbians to wed,” reports the think tank. “And all Central and Eastern European countries continue to ban gay marriage.”

Such bans are not always due to popular opposition. Germany, for example, has allowed civil unions for gays and lesbians since 2001, granting all the same rights of marriage with exception to adoption rights and the use of some reproductive technology.

Though three-quarters of Germans say they are in favor of legalization, Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly stated that gay marriage is not on the agenda, according to Reuters.

“We have already accomplished a lot," Chancellor Merkel said in a July interview. “Twenty-five years ago, many would not even dare to admit that they were gay or lesbian.”

On the other hand, Italy remains the only major Western European country not permitting civil partnerships or gay marriage. The government came under pressure in July, when a European court ruled that it was violating human rights by failing to offer couples legal protection, the BBC reported.

While some cities, including Rome and Milan, have opened registries for same-sex partnerships, the agenda of conservative Catholics remains influential, according to The Financial Times.

The shifting message of today’s religious conservatives may be able to offer some middle ground. Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church are asserting a softer position on gay marriage than ever before, The Associated Press reports.

And “while a public debate rages,” writes the Monitor’s Mary Beth McCauley, “individual believers are pursuing their faith in their own way.” 

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