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Ireland poised to make history with gay marriage vote

Voters in the deeply Catholic country appear likely to legalize same-sex marriage through a national popular vote Friday.

Gay and lesbian couples may soon be able to marry in the deeply Catholic country of Ireland, as voters there appear likely to legalize same-sex marriage through a national popular vote Friday.

The referendum, which asks citizens whether “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex,” stands to make Ireland the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage via popular vote, rather than through the legislature or the courts. Eighteen other countries — mainly in northern Europe, as well as parts of Mexico and most of the United States — currently allow gay and lesbian couples to wed.

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With a population that’s more than 80% Catholic, Ireland seems an unexpected leader on this issue. Prior to 1985, the country prohibited the sale of contraceptives. Consensual homosexual sex was illegal in Ireland until 1993. Divorce was not permitted until 1995, and abortion is still illegal in the country unless the life of the mother is at stake. Same-sex civil unions, meanwhile, have been legal since 2010.

Despite Ireland’s socially conservative record, Friday’s referendum is expected to pass. According to an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published last weekend, 74% of Irish voters favor allowing gay and lesbian couples the right to wed.

Dueling campaigns have canvassed the Emerald Isle in recent months, with both opponents and supporters championing family values.

“Without exception, every child reared by a same-sex couple is denied either a father or a mother,” a popular video from the No campaign warns. A video from the Yes campaign, entitled “The Kids Are Alright,” touches on many of the same notes, though sings a different tune.

“[Marriage equality] would make a huge difference to me because it would mean that my parents have the same rights that I have,” says one of many children with same-sex parents portrayed in the video. “And it means that my daughter would grow up in an Ireland where she and her friends and her family would all have the same rights regardless of what their sexual orientation was.”

LGBT advocates believe a “yes” vote could have major impact on the world stage, particularly in countries where it’s still difficult — or in some cases, dangerous — to be gay. It may also affect sentiment in the U.S., where Irish-Americans, along with the rest of the country, are growing more supportive of gay rights. Earlier this year, New York City’s famed St. Patrick’s Day parade allowed an LGBT group to march up Fifth Avenue for the first time in the celebration’s history.

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“To have a country that so many people have associated with conservative beliefs on social matters express support for the freedom to marry would be very powerful,” Marc Solomon, national campaign director for the U.S.-based group, Freedom to Marry, told msnbc. “It would also be another step in people’s evolution in the U.S. I think it’s only a positive, no question.”