BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Social conservatives in Slovakia aim to block gay couples from gaining more rights in a referendum on Saturday that pits the country's mainly liberal city dwellers against those in the more traditional countryside.
The campaign is part of a conservative pushback in eastern Europe against what they see as overly liberal policies spreading eastwards in the two decades since the European Union expanded to include former Communist states.
More than 400,000 Slovaks, nearly 10 percent of the central European country’s electorate, have signed a petition demanding a national vote. It is a rare show of political engagement in a country where people often shun public affairs - a mere 13 percent voted in the European Parliament election last year.
The vote will not change the legal status quo on same-sex unions but rather could cement opposition to any changes. Gay unions of any sort are not legal in Slovakia; two attempts to push them through parliament failed in the past.
Last year, parliament inserted the definition of traditional marriage into the constitution.
The group behind the referendum, Aliancia pre rodinu (Alliance for the Family), says the traditional family is under threat and points to an increasing number of countries including neighboring Austria and the Czech Republic that allow various forms of same-sex unions, or child adoption by gay couples.
"In many countries you feel that people are walking away from the family, they do not consider it to be an important value," said Anton Chromik, an attorney who has taken time off from his practice to help lead the movement.
"Slovaks want to say that for them it is the most important thing in their life."
The referendum poses three questions: whether marriage can only be a union of a man and a woman, whether same-sex couples should be banned from adoptions, and whether children can skip classes involving education on sex and euthanasia.
Croatia held a similar referendum in 2013 while in neighboring Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has championed traditional family values.
The "yes" campaign has a powerful backer: the local Catholic Church, which has actively campaigned for the referendum.
Sixty-two percent of Slovaks say they are Catholics, although less than 40 percent of those attend mass regularly.
This makes the country one of the most religious in Europe on the surface, yet it does not seem to fundamentally affect the way people live. Statistics show that the percentage of children born out of wedlock is only slightly lower than in neighboring Czech Republic, which is one of the least devout nations in Europe, and the number of births per woman are even lower.
Opponents are telling Slovaks to stay at home on referendum day, which would bring turnout below 50 percent needed to make the result valid, even if the vast majority of those who vote will endorse all the questions as expected.
Politicians, apart from the opposition Christian Democrats who fully endorse the referendum, have largely refrained from taking a strong stance. Leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico has said he would take part but not how he would vote.
Low turnout would please gays, especially in many Slovak towns outside the capital where their lives can be difficult.
"People still live in hiding. The minority is invisible outside Bratislava," said Martin Macko of gay rights group Inakost. "Those who have education often move to the Czech Republic or Austria."
Editing by Mark Heinrich