RIGA - Lawmakers have taken the first step toward a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage when they voted to have a proposed amendment worked out on the committee level.
Latvia's First Party, the religiously oriented political group that counts a number of ministers in its ranks, introduced the proposal, which restricts marriage to heterosexual couples.
The proposal won 55 votes on Sept. 15, with only one MP voting against and the rest abstaining or absent from the proceedings.
In order to become part of the constitution, the amendment will have to pass through three parliamentary readings and gain 67 votes in the 100-seat legislature.
Despite the fact that a ban already exists in the state's civil code, the First Party maintains that a constitutional amendment would add extra protection for traditional families.
Recently, more rights have been granted to gays and lesbians across Europe, which spurred several parliamentarians to put forward the proposal, party officials said.
"In many countries, including a number in Europe, as you know, such marriage is allowed, recognized and being officially registered. I have to admit I am proud that such marriage is not allowed in Latvia," Inese Slesere, a member of Latvia's First Party, said in Parliament.
The right-wing People's Party lined up behind the prohibition, but other coalition partners, such as the Greens and Farmers Union and New Era, said they would leave the decision up to individual members.
Still, there is mounting fear that a ban needs to be accepted now or risk flying in the face of a growing body of EU law that tolerates gay rights.
In her speech before Parliament, Slesere called the civil code's prohibition a "fragile barrier," referring to European Union anti-discrimination legislation set for adoption. Such laws, she argued, may come into conflict with the civil code's prohibition against same-sex marriage.
Despite opposing the proposal, other conservative parties supported the idea behind it.
"I definitely support the content of the amendment. At the same time I am definitely against its form," Karlis Sardurskis, faction head of New Era, said during the parliamentary hearing. "We do not amend the constitution every day - it is our basic law. I personally very much support the introduction of such a norm in the constitution, but I am categorically against playing with the constitution."
Other observers, however, pointed to possible election-posturing by Latvia's First, a party whose popularity has often skirted close to the 5 percent barrier needed for sitting in Parliament.
Latvia's First Party was at the forefront of anti-gay hysteria that erupted during the country's first gay and lesbian pride parade earlier this year. Transport Minister Ainars Slesers, husband of Inese Slesere, had called for the resignation of the mayor of Riga since the event was authorized at all, and threatened the stability of the national government. Tapping into homophobia in society may be a way to ensure continued support from at least part of the electorate.
Many observers said that public statements from Slesers and Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, helped set off a huge counter-protest that brought thousands of people onto the streets of Riga in opposition to the march.
While Latvia's First Party may be opposed to same-sex marriage due to religious reasons, as many observers have pointed out, the party admits the decision will likely find broad public support in the run-up to next year's Parliamentary elections. A stridently homophobic electorate, may make supporting the amendment too tempting to pass up for some conservative MPs, but even so, finding the 67 votes may prove difficult, if not impossible.
Latvia is the last EU member state that has not transposed EU anti-discrimination legislation, which could lead to a lawsuit in the European Court of Justice if it not accepted.
A 2003 European Gallup poll surveying 30 European countries placed Latvia near the bottom in attitudes regarding same-sex marriages.