December 15, 2005

Latvia alters constitution, blocking gay marriage

By Jorgen Johansson

RIGA (Reuters) - Latvian lawmakers blocked same-sex
marriages by changing the Baltic state's constitution on
Thursday, infuriating gay rights activists who said they may
take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Ex-Soviet Latvia, which joined the European Union last
year, sees itself as a progressive democracy enjoying one of
Europe's fastest growing economies. But many people retain
conservative views about the family and gay rights.

"It is ridiculous that Latvia is sinking into a homophobic
society when the rest of Europe is going the other way," said
political analyst Karlis Streips, who is openly gay.

Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands have all allowed gay
marriages in the last five years, while a British law
permitting same-sex civil partnerships came into effect earlier
this month.

Analysts said Thursday's amendment defining marriage as the
union of a man and a woman had effectively blocked the legal
recognition of same-sex marriages in Latvia.

"Of course we will be called homophobes and worse," said
Minister for Children and Family Affairs Ainars Bastiks. "But
we are a democracy and we have a right to make our own
decisions after discussions."

He added: "For conservative societies it shows that we can
protect our values."

Latvia's parliament passed the amendment easily, with 65
votes for, six against and nine abstentions, a result that drew
applause from some lawmakers.

"This is not against gays. It is supporting traditional
families," said lawmaker Oskars Kastens of the First Party, a
ruling-coalition party that proposed the amendment.

"Looking at trends in Europe we are against liberalization
of the idea of family. It is the same in both Lithuania and

Latvian gay rights activists immediately denounced the
decision, saying it was discriminatory and ran counter to a
European trend toward recognizing same sex marriages.

"I think the decision in parliament today ... will add to
the growing homophobia in today's society," said Maris Sants, a
spokesman for gay rights group ILGA Latvia.

"Our next step could be to go to the human rights court in
Europe," he said.

In July Latvia's first gay pride march, promoted as a
turning point in its tolerance of sexual minorities, was
suddenly canceled after complaints from the prime minister.

"We are a state based on Christian values and we cannot
promote things that are unacceptable for a large part of
society," said Prime Minister Minister Aigars Kalvitis.

The ban was later lifted, but the thin straggle of marchers
were menaced by thousands of angry anti-gay protestors.