On February 7, Slovakia will put human rights to a vote. A referendum seeks to exclude same-sex couples from entering into marriage; restrict them from adopting or raising a family; and limit access to comprehensive sex education at school.
This is a regressive proposal that would violate the standards protected under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which Slovakia has ratified and, as such, its constitution gives precedence over domestic law.
The referendum was organized by the Slovak government as a result of a petition by the “Alliance for Family”, a conservative group that has gathered about 400,000 signatures, which was sufficient to demand that there be a vote. According to several media reports, the “Alliance for Family” is supported by evangelical groups from the US. For example, the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization with a substantial budget that targets European countries in which it can oppose developments contrary to their religious views, intervened in the Constitutional Court case to support the referendum.
Then on Wednesday, Pope Francis weighed in during the general audience in Rome, saying: “I greet the pilgrims from Slovakia and, through them, I wish to express my appreciation to the entire Slovak church, encouraging everyone to continue their efforts in defense of the family, the vital cell of society.” Slovakia is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, in which the Catholic Church has already thrown its weight behind the referendum, so the Pope’s words are sure to resonate.
Pope Francis has shown willingness to engage with different forms of families over the past year, including those of LGBT people. Given the Slovak context, however, these statements seem to support a referendum which would leave many families and their children out in the cold. Undoubtedly, his statement will be used by conservative religious groups (Catholic and non-Catholic) to try to limit the rights of LGBT people in countries with a Christian majority.
Eastern Europe seems to have become the new battleground for US evangelicals. These groups are now trying to do in Slovakia what they failed to do back home: stop same-sex marriage and limit other civil rights for LGBT couples. And they have made some progress. Currently, Slovakia does not legally recognize relationships between same-sex partners, and in 2014 changed its constitution to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
Proponents of the referendum are desperate to maximize the turnout, which needs to exceed 50% of registered voters to make the referendum valid. However, if the majority of the Slovak population chose to shun the polls on Saturday, the churches may need to reflect on whether their constituents support equality and inclusiveness more than those who run the institutions do.
Whatever the result of the referendum, the Slovak government should resist homophobic views and should demonstrate true leadership and commitment to European values. It should introduce legislation to legally recognize civil unions and affirm the rights of LGBT people to found a family and raise children.