By Neil Harrison

ROMANIA needs no help from abroad to promote intolerance towards its LGBT communities, yet the Liberty Counsel – a right-wing American organisation officially designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center – has chosen to poke its nose into a gay marriage referendum Romania plans on holding before the end of the year.

It did so be sending Kim Davis – the Kentucky county clerk jailed for five days in 2015 after refusing to issue same-sex marriage licences – to Romania to tell officials there that the legalisation of gay marriage in had impacted negatively on US Christians.

Liberty Counsel, which represented Davis when she got herself into hot water over her homophobia, said in October that D

Kim Davis in Romania

Davis and the group’s Vice President of Legal Affairs, Harry Mihet, were touring the Eastern European country to discuss the dire effects of same-sex marriage in the US, and to support Romania’s campaign to block legal recognition of such unions there.

The pair, according to a Liberty Council press release, “are holding conferences in Romania’s largest cities, including Bucharest, Cluj, Sibiu, Timisoara and Iasi. Their message is simple and based upon the recent lessons learned in the United States: same-sex ‘marriage’ and freedom of conscience are mutually exclusive, because those who promote the former have zero tolerance for the latter.”

Davis, who remains Rowan County’s clerk, was jailed for contempt after refusing to issue marriage licenses in compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v Hodges, which made it legal for gays and lesbians to marry in every state. Her office now issues licences without her signature.

Romania, according to a Politico report, is gearing up to hold a referendum to amend the constitution to prohibit gay marriage, a move that civil rights groups warn could put the country on an “illiberal” path alongside the likes of Hungary and Poland.

Romania’s civil code forbids same-sex marriage, and civil partnerships – whether between heterosexual or gay partners – are not legal.

But the constitution’s gender-neutral formulation on marriage, which defines it as a union “between spouses,” has left the legislative door open to legalising gay marriage.

“This is an issue of immense depth,” Liviu Dragnea, leader of the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the most powerful politician in Romania, told reporters in September, pledging to quickly amend the constitution. “Even if some of my colleagues in Brussels are unhappy with what is happening in Romania, we will make it happen.”

The planned vote – which could be held as early as November – is the result of a campaign by “Coalition for Family,” which brings together more than 40 groups, many of them religious or describing themselves as “pro-life”.
With the backing of the influential Orthodox Church, the organisation collected three million signatures (Romania’s population is 20 million) in just a few months in 2015, enough to take the initiative to parliament.

“We have the constitutional right and moral obligation to defend the family from those tendencies of modern society which diminish its importance and accelerate its degradation,” says the Coalition for Family’s website.

All major political parties in Romania have expressed support for the constitutional change, with the exception of newcomer Union to Save Romania (USR), and the initiative is expected to be approved in parliament. The government has said it wants to call a popular referendum as soon as November, but the Constitutional Court’s announcement that it would analyse the law’s compatibility with the rest of constitution may push back the date of the vote. As long as participation exceeds 30 percent of the electorate, a vote in favour will give the green light to constitutional change, undoing decades of campaigning by LGBTQ groups in Romania and possibly putting the country on a collision course with Brussels.

“This referendum is evidence of Romania’s moving in an illiberal direction,” said Vlad Viski, the President of MozaiQ, one of Romania’s largest LGBTQ rights groups.

Romania’s referendum against marriage equality is not the first of its kind in the region.

In Croatia, a group called “In the Name of the Family” collected 750,000 signatures in 2013 to launch a referendum that successfully amended the country’s constitution to stipulate that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman. In 2015, the “Alliance for Family” mobilised Slovakians to trigger a referendum to restrict the family rights of gay people, but the vote eventually failed because of low turnout.

That same year, Slovenia’s “Children are at Stake” group used a referendum to block the government’s plan to legalise gay marriage. (The country passed the legislation this year.)

Efforts to prohibit gay marriage also tend to go hand-in-hand with campaigns to remove sexual education classes and restrict abortion rights.

Similar efforts to mobilise citizens to restrict gay rights have taken place in Georgia, Bulgaria, France and elsewhere across Europe. In many cases, US religious groups like Liberty Counsel have played an active role in their campaigns.

Romania’s Coalition is also receiving legal assistance from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has also been branded as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The international chapters of both the Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel submitted pro-referendum legal opinions to Romania’s Constitutional Court while the body assessed whether the civic initiative could be considered by parliament.

Liberty Counsel’s Mihet said his organisation “provided legal support and shared lessons we have learned while advocating for natural marriage in the United States and elsewhere.” Andreas Thonhauser, a spokesman for ADF International, said that the group also gave legal expertise to other countries in the region that requested help.

Local churches – be it the Orthodox Church in Romania or the Catholic Church in Slovakia or Croatia – were also involved in recent anti-LGBTQ rights campaigns. Efforts to prohibit gay marriage also tend to go hand-in-hand with campaigns to remove sexual education classes from school curricula and restrict abortion rights.

Academics from Central and Eastern Europe, including feminist historian Andrea Peto from the Central European University in Budapest, have argued that this type of initiative constitutes an “anti-gender movement” that targets not only LGBTQ people but also takes aim at women and people who don’t fit into their conception of a “natural, traditional” family pattern.