When politics overwrite values: Romania’s homophobic referendum

When politics overwrite values: Romania’s homophobic referendum

Posted on the 02/10/18

Imagine a country where a referendum is scheduled with less than a month’s notice, leaving too little time for public administrations to sufficiently prepare and provide basic guarantees. Now imagine that this referendum, pushed by religious extremists and aiming at making homophobic changes to the constitution, was supported by a government because it allowed a short term political win in a situation where the ruling party is plagued by corruption scandals. Imagine that this ruling party considered itself left-wing…

The country you are imagining is Romania and the referendum in question is the one scheduled for this weekend about inscribing the definition of the family in the Constitution as a “union between a man and a woman.”

We asked our Romanian members to tell us more about the political, legal and cultural background of this referendum and what they told us left us a very bitter taste. We immediatly wrote to the European socialists to ask them how they could tolerate such denial of their values by a member party. They did take action but it seems with virtually no results.

In the meantime, we wanted to share with all of you an insight into the run up to this referendum. We wholeheartedly thank Raluca Ciocian-Ardeleanu, our Board Member and Vice President of the Romanian Secular-Humanist Association for this extremely interesting article!

Many Christian moderates consider the referendum to be a waste of money and an instrument allowing the government to distract public opinion from the many corruption scandals in which the majority party is involved

Romania to hold two-day referendum to change the constitutional definition of family as union between a man and a woman

by Raluca Ciocian-Ardeleanu
EHF Board Member,
Vice President of  
Romanian Secular-Humanist Association

Romania’s issue with the definition of marriage started in 2015, when an NGO called The Coalition for Family gathered 3 million signatures in order to trigger the process of changing the constitution. The goal? Making same sex marriage legally unattainable in the future. Concretely, this would mean setting into stone the definition of marriage by changing the constitution’s current definition of  the family as a “union between spouses” to a “union between a man and a woman”.

The Coalition for Family takes the signatures to the Parliament. Photograph by George Popescu.

Who is the Coalition for Family?

In theory, it’s just a secular, informal, alliance of over 40 NGOs with no legal personality that supports the family. In practice, on the members list there are many religious and conservative NGOs. It has strong ties with the Romanian Orthodox Church (the majority church in Romania, 81% of the population) and signed protocols with all major Romanian parties across the political spectrum. The network’s reach and financial resources helped it gather 3 million signatures to initiate the constitutional change. Moreover, in the autumn of 2017 they organized a tour across the country with the goal to promote the family and christian values. The main guest was American county clerk Kim Davis, who is famous for refusing to approve marriage documents and prohibiting her colleagues to do that as well, after gay marriage was legalised across the USA.

Both the push for a referendum and the series of conferences throughout the country were a costly affair, and it’s not at all transparent who provided the funds. The Coalition seems to be financed by various Protestant organizations in the United States and similar pro-family organizations in Eastern European countries.

A poster for a conference titled “An american testimony on the freedom of conscience”, at the public county library in Sibiu. The hashtag reads #ReferendumForRomania.

A process riddled with doubt and procedural flaws

Beyond the lack of transparency in the financing, many legal and procedural flaws have characterized the campaign.

First, the church’s involvement in gathering the necessary number of signatures raised many eyebrows. Instances were reported of priests appointing volunteers from congregations to raise signatures.

Further on, the current Constitution states that an initiative to change the Constitution must be voted on by Parliament within 6 months from the moment the request was filed. This happened much later in this case.

Moreover, the decisional Chamber of the Parliament voted to approve the change on 11 September and scheduled the referendum on 27 October, leaving local administrations less than one month to prepare.

Yes campaigners were stopping people on the street, telling them that if they don’t vote for changing the constitution, foreigners will come to our country to tell children that they can just change their gender if they want to.

Adding to this, on Tuesday, 18 September, the Government adopted an emergency ordinance prolonging the voting period by one day, so that the vote would take place during the entire weekend. Although it’s technically illegal to change the rules of a referendum within 6 months of it taking place, the new voting schedule will stay as it is unless the Ombudsman attacks the emergency ordinance.

Moreover, because of the very short time available to organize it, the electronic system to prevent voting fraud by cross-checking the identity of the voters in a national database will not be available for the referendum. This will place further doubts on the results.

The referendum will cost the Romanian state 35 million Euros. Moreover, the phrasing of the question is very ambiguous, reading “Do you agree with the Law for the Constitutional Revision, as adopted by the Parliament?” Many Christian moderates consider the referendum to be a waste of money and an instrument allowing the government to distract public opinion from the many corruption scandals in which the majority party is involved.

No winning strategy for human rights supporters

In order for the proposed change to pass, two conditions must be fulfilled. A minimum of 30% of the population with voting rights must express a valid vote in the referendum, and a simple majority of the participants needs to approve the change.

Given these conditions, most LGBT and human rights NGOs in Romania advised the population to boycott the vote. The boycott is not only a technicality; of course, not attaining the 30% threshold would invalidate the referendum, but there’s only a slim chance for that. The stance is also a moral one, sending the message that the majority should not be able to vote to restrict the rights of a minority.

In order to make sure the referendum passes, churches have started a massive campaign, including priests encouraging people to go to vote during sermons, showing posters in churches but not limited to that. In some Romanian schools, children received flyers or had teachers urging them and their parents to go and vote yes to the referendum..

In some cities, huge banners appeared in public spaces, telling people to go and vote yes, otherwise gay people will take their children away. People reported receiving SMS’s to go to vote, either appealing to their religious sentiment or spreading fear of gay couples adopting children.

The banner reads: Come to the referendum! Vote YES for the marriage between a man and a woman! Defend the Romanian family and children! If you don’t come to vote, two men will be able to adopt your child.  Source

Moreover, some town halls have posted official messages supporting a Yes vote for a referendum, being in breach of the Romanian law, where the administration must abstain from taking any stance towards voting options.

In many Romanian cities, Yes campaigners were stopping people on the street to give them flyers, and in some cases, telling them that if they don’t vote for changing the constitution, foreigners will come to our country to tell children that they can just change their gender if they want to. Some of these actions are illegal, but the very short time and the lack of accountability makes it very hard to stop the propaganda.

Outlook for the referendum and future action steps

Looking at the history of Eastern European countries voting on the issue, unfortunately it’s safe to assume that the change will pass, and the Romanian constitution will prohibit same-sex marriage. This is a big blow for the LGBT minority and for couples living together without being married, especially since Romania doesn’t have any law for civil partnerships. Two such initiatives were turned down in the parliament in the last 6 years.

However, there might be a silver lining. In 2016, a gay couple formed by a Romanian and an American man, married in Belgium, sued the Romanian state for not recognizing their marriage, and forcing the American member of the couple to use a simple tourist visa in order to stay in the country with his husband for a limited number of months at a time. This summer, the Constitutional Court finally decided that they are obligated to recognize the couple’s right to travel freely within the EU, given that the marriage has taken place in an EU country. The decision went further on to say that a couple’s rights are considered family rights, regardless of the gender of the members, and the State needs to do something to protect them, be it through marriage or civil partnership. This decision, that was published officially in the past days, basically lays down a responsibility for the Romanian state to offer some sort of legal union even for same-sex couples.

The referendum was discussed within the European Parliament’s Socialist and Democrat group meetings with the Romanian prime-minister Viorica Dancila, who made a visit in Brussels, and on 1 October by European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, within the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament. Timmermans said that even if he is a family man, with children, he doesn’t want to invalidate other types of families or to use the family to justify homophobia. He also said he’s proud to be a citizen of Netherlands, a country that was among the first to offer equal access to gay couples to marriage.

Activists fear this is only the beginning

However, many fear that this is only the first step on the agenda of the Coalition for Family. Its website explicitly mentions banning civil unions, as these would “cheapen” marriage. It also clearly states that the primary role of marriage is procreation and protecting the child. Therefore, it proposes stopping state-funded contraception and abortion, and banning minors from accessing contraceptive measures or abortions without parental agreement.

Romania is on the brink of making its first step towards an illiberal agenda, where a religious majority can ban rights for a minority. The humanist associations in Romania firmly condemn the legitimacy of this process and consider that human rights are non-negotiable, regardless of one’s sexual orientation.

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