RIGA - Parliament adopted an extraordinary constitutional amendment on Dec. 14 to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman and effectively ban same sex marriage.
By doing so, Latvia joined Poland as the second EU member state to enshrine a constitutional definition that bars gay marriage.
Parliament amended the constitution after 65 members voted in favor and six voted against. The remaining MPs in the 100-seat Parliament either abstained or were absent.
Latvia's First Party Faction head Janis Smits told journalists after the vote that he was proud of the decision, adding that there were no openly gay people in national politics. "There are no such people among our lawmakers, and the statesmen also lead a normal life, and we can take pride in this," Smits said.
Shortly after the vote, the local gay community said they would mount a legal challenge and called on President Vaira Vike-Freiberga to send the legislation back to Parliament for review. She may do so, though considering that such a clear majority has voted in favor of the amendment, the possibility is slight.
The vote also stirred an unflattering display of parliamentary conduct. For instance, Andis Kaposts, a member of the Greens and Farmers' Union, voted against the amendment by mistake. When other MPs found out what he had done, they hassled him. One lawmaker even used the word "blue" in his address, the word being slang for a gay person in Latvian.
Later, when the names of those that voted against were read out, a chorus of "boos" was heard throughout the hall.
Altering the constitution was necessary to protect the institution of marriage from EU anti-discrimination legislation, said Latvia's First Party, which initiated the amendment.
The state's civil code already effectively outlaws same sex marriage.
Inese Slesere, a member of Latvia's First Party, said in Parliament on Sept. 15, "I would like to use this opportunity and thank all the parliamentarians for entrusting me with the opportunity to work in the European Parliament, where I could verify how immensely powerful the gay and lesbian lobby is in Europe."
Slesere went on to say that anti-discrimination legislation could pose a threat to the civil code's prohibition on gay marriage. As such, amending the constitution was one way to protect the institution of marriage. "Only while strengthening and defending [traditional families], can we overcome the demographic crisis, and avert a threatening demographic catastrophe for Latvia," she said.
There were experts who disagreed. The amendment is misconceived, Robert Wintemute, a leading human rights legal scholar, wrote by e-mail. "The EU is not planning to force Latvia to allow same-sex couples to marry, because the EU is not seen as having a general competence over family law and because many EU member states would object to such a proposal."
If, however, EU law was to expand to cover the issue, or if a number of states party to the European Convention on Human Rights supported gay marriage, a Latvian constitutional provision opposed to same sex unions would not provide the desired protection and would be overridden, Wintemute said.
Many critics of the amendment see next year's parliamentary elections as playing a part in the movement for changing the constitution. "It's a very clever game by Latvia's First Party to have this right before the election," Juris Lavrikovs, a Latvian who works as the communication officer for Ilga, a pan-European gay group, said from Brussels.
"Many politicians simply cannot afford to openly oppose this. It has nothing to do with protection of the family," Lavrikovs added.
Wintemute has advised against a legal challenge, saying that there is no basis in EU law for overturning the legislation. Wintemute suggested instead that the local gay community move toward same sex partnerships, a course that many Western European countries have taken.
Gays and lesbians, a previously invisible community in Latvia, came to the forefront during the country's first gay pride parade earlier this year when an angry crowd of thousands threatened the participants, who were protected by a large police presence.
Juris Calitis, dean of the University of Latvia's theology faculty, was later thrown out of the Lutheran Church for hosting an ecumenical service after the pride parade.