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Will the people of Ireland legalize same-sex marriage?

LONDON -- Ireland's Catholic Prime Minister is urging his fellow citizens to make the island nation the first in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote this week, calling it an "opportunity that won't come again."

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Ireland's Prime minister Enda Kenny
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Speaking to Ireland's Independent newspaper for an article published Sunday, Enda Kenny admitted that two decades ago -- a not-so-distant time when homosexuality was still illegal in the conservative nation -- even he didn't "have had the sort of level of understanding of the extent of the involvement in our community of people who are gay."

"The world has changed utterly," he told the Independent, saying that for him," personally, it's been a journey."

Opinion polls suggested the Yes vote, to legalize same-sex marriage, had a significant lead across Ireland heading into Friday's vote.

In Ireland, any change to the constitution, including the proposed amendment to protect marriage rights for same-sex couples, requires a public referendum.

Support for equal rights for the homosexual community in Ireland has grown quickly in recent decades, as the preeminent moral authority of the Catholic Church has declined in the wake of the sex abuse scandal.

If the Yes vote wins on Friday, it will not compel the Catholic Church or any other religious institution to carry out same-sex weddings -- it would only compel civil authorities to issue marriage licenses to eligible same-sex couples.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.