ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatians on Sunday are voting in a referendum that could ban gay marriages after conservative groups, backed by the influential Roman Catholic Church, demanded that the country's constitution defines the matrimony as a union of a man and a woman.
The issue has divided the European Union's newest member nation. Liberal groups have said the referendum's question — "Do you agree that marriage is matrimony between a man and a woman?" — infringes on basic human rights. The church-backed groups have gathered over 700,000 signatures in its support.
If a majority votes "yes," Croatia's constitution will be amended to ban same sex marriages.
Most polls conducted ahead of the referendum said that nearly 60 percent of voters will vote "Yes" while some 30 percent will be against.
About 9.3 percent of voters turned out at the polling stations in the first four hours, officials said.
The country of 4.4 million, which became EU's 28th member in July, has taken steps to improve gay rights, but issues such as same-sex marriage remain highly sensitive in the staunchly Catholic nation.
The referendum was called by the "In the Name of the Family" conservative group after Croatia's center-left government drafted a law to let gay couples register as "life partners."
The Catholic Church leaders have urged their followers to vote "Yes" in the referendum. Nearly 90 percent of Croatians are Roman Catholics.
"Marriage is the only union enabling procreation," Croatia's Cardinal Josip Bozanic said in his message to the followers. "This is the key difference between a marriage and other unions."
Several hundred gay rights supporters marched in Croatia's capital, Zagreb, on Saturday urging a "No" vote.
"I will vote against because I think that the referendum is not a festival of democracy, but a festival of oppression against a minority, which fights for its rights and which does not have its rights," Jura Matulic, a university student, said.
Croatia's liberal President Ivo Josipovic said he will vote against amending the constitution.
"We don't need this kind of a referendum," Josipovic said. "Defining marriage between a man and a woman does not belong to the constitution. A nation is judged by its attitude toward minorities."
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said that "this is the last referendum that gives a chance to the majority to strip a minority of its rights."
The EU has not officially commented on the referendum, but has clashed with Croatia over some of its other laws, including an extradition law that has prevented its citizens from being handed over to bloc's other member states, which Croatia had to amend under pressure from Brussels.
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.