A referendum on banning same-sex marriage has drawn international anti-gay marriage campaigners to Romania including Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk briefly jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences to gay couples.
Davis is on a nine-day tour of Romania before a referendum to be held before the end of the year on a proposed amendment to the country’s constitution, which would rule out any possibility of legalising same-sex marriage.
Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based anti-LGBT Christian group that represented Davis in her 2015 court battle, said she and another group member were speaking in two major Romanian cities and had met Orthodox church archbishops.
Romania’s civil code prohibits same-sex partnership and civil partnerships are not recognised, but the constitution – which defines marriage as “between spouses” – is gender neutral so could in theory allow gay unions at some future stage.
After a campaign by the Coalition for the Family – many of whose 40 member groups have links to the Orthodox church or promote the “traditional family” – a petition calling for a referendum on constitutional change gathered 3m signatures in 2015 – six times the number required to put the demand before parliament.
“We have the constitutional right and moral obligation to defend the family from trends in modern society that reduce its importance and accelerate its decline,” the organisation’s website says. It wants the constitution amended to define marriage as union between “a man and a woman”.
The petition is being examined by Romania’s constitutional court but, with the support of all major political parties, is thought almost certain to win parliamentary backing, allowing the referendum to take place possibly as early as next month.
The powerful leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democratic party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, has said the government was committed to the change and plans to hold the referendum this autumn. “Even if some of my colleagues in Brussels are unhappy about it, we will make it happen,” he said last month.
A turnout of more than 30% would ensure the constitutional change goes ahead, to the alarm of Romanian civil rights groups, who have argued the referendum’s only aim is to “incite public opinion against LGBT people” and have criticised it as an erosion of Romanian democracy.
Respect, a civic platform of about 100 pro-rights groups formed this summer to fight the amendment, said the referendum must be opposed. “We are seeing a determined attempt to use religion or traditional themes to oppose human rights,” said the platform’s founder, Cristian Pârvulescu. “We know how this ends.”
The move would also bring Bucharest into a potentially broader conflict with the European Union, already concerned by the increasingly illiberal, socially conservative and even authoritarian drift of some eastern European governments such as those in Hungary and Poland.
At least two US-based conservative Christian groups, including Liberty Counsel and Alliance Defending Freedom, have reportedly provided advice to Romania’s Coalition for the Family, submitting legal opinions backing the referendum to the country’s constitutional court.
Harry Mihet, Liberty Counsel’s vice-president of legal affairs, was accompanying Davis – who spent five days in prison for refusing to issue marriage licences to gay couples in Rowan County, Kentucky – on her visit.
“Their message is simple and based upon the recent lessons learned in the United States,” the group said in a statement. “Same-sex ‘marriage’ and freedom of conscience are mutually exclusive, because those who promote the former have zero tolerance for the latter.”
Liberty Counsel is primarily a legal advocacy group. In the US, Liberty Counsel is active in defending the practice of reparative therapy, a discredited and potentially harmful form of counselling that attempts to “convert” a person’s sexual orientation from gay, lesbian or bisexual to straight. Reparative therapy is typically practiced on children.
Its clients have included Scott Lively, who encouraged Uganda’s anti-gay movement shortly before it produced its infamous bill to outlaw homosexuality under penalty of death.
It was listed as an anti-LGBT hate group in 2013 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which accused it of “spreading false and defamatory information about LGBT people”.
Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said: “In 2016, Liberty Counsel filed an amicus brief with the constitutional court of Romania in support of the country’s proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as one man and one woman.
“The brief peddles junk science that pushes a false and harmful narrative, which includes statements such as ‘engaging in homosexual conduct is dangerous’ among other false claims.”