Following months of debate in the largely conservative, heavily Catholic country, Friday marks the day of Ireland's landmark referendum on same-sex marriage. If a majority votes "yes," it will make the Irish nation the first in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote.
Irish voters today will have to go to the polls to answer "yes" or "no" on the statement: "Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex." If approved, gays and lesbians in Ireland will be allowed a civil marriage, though they cannot wed in a church.
That Ireland, of all countries, is set to make history on same-sex marriage legalization is astonishing. With a Roman Catholic majority population and a lackluster record on the issue — Ireland was one of the last Western nations to decriminalize homosexuality in 1993 after it was brought to the European Court of Human Rights — the rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage that gave rise to the referendum shocked even its proponents.
LGBT Irish couples have been allowed to form civil partnerships since 2010, but on Friday, voters will decide whether civil marriage rights should be extended to them. The "yes" camp has had the majority in every opinion poll prior to the vote, but such polls have been wrong before. In this case, more elderly, conservative, rural voters could be the referendum's downfall, The New York Times reported.
Some 20 countries have legalized gay marriage, but Ireland could be the first to do so by popular vote. According to The Guardian, in urban areas, especially Dublin, about 20 percent of the electorate cast their vote before lunchtime.
Friday's vote follows a growing global shift toward marriage equality and larger gay rights. In the U.S., the issue remains deeply contentious in socially conservative states. But statistics show the whirlwind speed at which gay marriage has gained acceptance here, as people come around to the fact that the license to marry should not be contingent on sexual orientation or identification.
Polling in Ireland continues until 10 p.m. local time (or 5 p.m. ET). Results will be announced on Saturday.
Cover image via iStock.