updated 10/18/2004 11:26:01 AM ET 2004-10-18T15:26:01

Ireland, a mostly Roman Catholic country where divorce was legalized just seven years ago, is contemplating another leap away from its conservative past — and toward greater rights for homosexual couples.

An all-party committee of lawmakers plans to meet next week to discuss the need to modernize Ireland’s family law — including, its members confirm, the possibility of granting gay couples rights similar to those enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.

All parties agree that the Irish constitution, written in 1937, reflects outdated values for the 21st century.

“If you look at the provisions for the family in the constitution, they were written when women were seen as being tied to the kitchen sink,” said committee chairman Denis O’Donovan, who confirmed that lawmakers would “take an objective look” at the possibility of granting legal status to gay couples.

‘Same rights’
While members of the two major parties — O’Donovan’s Fianna Fail and Fine Gael — continue to reflect conservative social values, left-leaning members have called for gays to receive exactly the same familial rights as heterosexuals.

Jan O’Sullivan of the opposition Labour Party said gay couples should have “the same rights that everyone else has, whether you call it marriage or something else.”

The lawmakers’ committee expects to publish a report of recommendations to the government by July 2005.

It also plans to review the scope of parents’ rights in a country where a third of all births happen out of wedlock, and separation is now commonplace, but divorce is still a relatively new phenomenon.

The divorce law, narrowly passed in a referendum in 1995 and enacted by lawmakers in 1997, allows separated couples to divorce only after at least four years of court-recognized separation — a system, critics say, that drives up legal expenses for splitting couples, who must go through two court battles instead of one.

Family law experts also say Ireland’s divorce courts are biased in favor of women in child custody cases, reflecting a traditional view of men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. Some have argued for the family courts — which currently operate in total secrecy to protect people’s privacy — to be opened to visitors or journalists, so that the public can get a sense of how the system works.

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