Government officials were unhappy, and called the marriage referendum divisive, discriminatory, and a waste of money. Reports of officials intimidating supporters leaked in the weeks before the vote. Yet supporters – many who grew up under communist rule – did not buckle under threats of investigations and being labeled fascists.
The conflict began in May after Croatia’s government drafted a law for same-sex couples to register as “life partners.” The country already recognizes unregistered cohabitation for same-sex couples, including next-of-kin and inheritance rights, but excludes the right to adopt children.
A group quickly formed, called “In the Name of the Family.” They gathered over 740,000 signatures in 15 days for a nationwide referendum asking: Do you support amending the constitution to define marriage as a life-long union of a woman and a man? Homosexual groups said the wording was biased.
It was Croatia’s first citizen referendum since its independence in 1991.
“We believe that marriage, children and family are such important issues that the whole society has to decide them,” Zeljka Markic, the leader of the initiative, told AFP. People of different faiths – Orthodox, Protestants, Muslims and Jews – supported it.
In a letter read in Catholic churches across the country, Cardinal Josip Bozanic said, “Marriage is the only union enabling procreation.” Almost 90% of the population is Catholic.
But supporters feared retaliation.
A popular priest and student chaplain at Zagreb University was pressured to be silent on marriage. Rev. Damir Stoji?, who speaks on chastity and runs a pray-rather-than-pay  café, was summoned by an official for organizing a panel on the referendum, a tactic reminiscent of communist oppression.
Gong, a homosexual group funded by the European Commission, pressured the pro-marriage group to release donors’ names. Markic – who endured a government investigation of her business and personal property – declined, explaining volunteers were already “exposed to public lynching.”
A commenter on a news website  elaborated. In Croatia, 95% of pro-marriage voters didn’t speak openly because they were “tagged by mainstream media and TV as fascist, Nazis, uneducated, primitive, as Catholic talibans – this is a new term made up by this horrible campaign.”
“In this month I realized what is like to live in dictatorship, to fear to express your opinion so my business and social status” are not damaged.
Recently, Croatia’s foreign minister joined the LGBT Core Group  at the UN that committed to “concerted action” on homosexual and transgender rights.
Last month, a U.S. official spoke in Croatia  at the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) Europe’s annual conference. She said a top priority for President Obama is “engaging international organizations to fight LGBT discrimination” and criticized expressions of opposing views of gay pride marches.
After voting against the marriage referendum, Croatia’s president Ivo Josipovic pledged to push a bill granting more privileges to homosexual persons living together.
Elsewhere, Markic told a cheering crowd, “We showed that we know, like David fighting Goliath, how to direct our small sling stones in the same direction. This time for the protection of marriage, next time for something else of the same importance.”
Croatia is the newest member of the European Union, and the sixth to protect marriage in its constitution, joining Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary.