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Tide May Be Turning on Anti-Gay Amendments

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jul 9, 2007
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Anti-gay constitutional amendment initiatives may no longer be the sure-fire "slam-dunk" they were even a couple of years ago, throwing a measure of doubt onto a Florida effort to ban marriage equality in 2008.

A story posted Sunday by the Tampa Tribune’s tbo.com tracked recent developments nationwide in the saga of social and religious conservatives’ ongoing efforts to write discrimination against gay families into bedrock law, state by state.

Voters in 28 states approved anti-marriage equality constitutional amendments between 1998 - 2006. But then, in 2006, Arizona voters bucked the trend, sending a proposed amendment to their constitution down to defeat.

More recently, in Massachusetts, what had looked to be a sure thing fell apart when a proposed amendment did not manage to scrape up the one-quarter vote from the state’s 200 lawmakers during a June, 2007 constitutional convention.

The article said that city and county referendums targeting gays and lesbians are also losing traction, and quoted a University of South Florida political scientist on the issue.

"They [anti-gay measures put before voters] are increasingly not a slam-dunk," said Susan McManus.

The proposed amendment reads, "Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized." Proponents of the amendment say that the sole intention of the amendment is to enshrine in the state’s bedrock law a policy that already exists as a state law.

But experience in other states points to broader implications. Advocates of a similar constitutional amendment that voters approved in Michigan in 2004 had made similar statements to quell the fear that gay and lesbian families would be harmed by the Michigan amendment, but once the amendment had been passed, health insurance for partners of government and university employees were promptly targeted.

Opponents of the Florida measure point not just to the potential loss of such benefits, but also to a possible curtailing or elimination of domestic partnerships and even an undermining of laws such as ones in place to guard against domestic violence.

Now that constitutional amendments in Florida are required to pass with a 60% margin of approval, the task of social and religious conservatives to write gay families out of legal existence has become that much more difficult.

Anti-family equality amendments in Wisconin, Michigan, and Virginia passed with less than a 60% majority.

Meantime, two new PACs--Florida Red & Blue, and Fairness for All Families--have emerged to combat the threat to Florida’s GLBT families. Fairness for all Families is a coalition that includes retirees groups and churches, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But in this case, there may not be safety in numbers, say activists; a united front with a single consistent message, say activists in Arizona, is more effective.

"Discipline can be hard for activists," offered Arizona State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who also belongs to Arizona Together, an organization that helped beat back that state’s anti-marriage equality amendment in 2006.

Added Sinema, "In other states, they would bounce back and forth between messages."

The Arizona campaign focused on how side effects from anti-gay legislation can affect unmarried heterosexual couples as well.

Sinema said that activists in Florida need to "Raise a lot of money now. Do the research to figure out a message that works for Floridians. Be disciplined in communicating that message."

Anti-family equality groups like the Florida Coalition to Protect Marriage, led by religious conservative and Orlando lawyer John Stemburger, already know the importance of a simple, clear message. Stemburger’s group is well on its way to completing a push to gather 611,009 signatures on a petition to put the anti-family equality amendment on the 2008 ballot. Already, Florida officials have approved 467,000 signatures.

Organizations on both sides of the issue, along with other Florida PACs, will be reporting on fundraising for second quarter 2007 this week. According to the article from tbo.com, Fairness for All Families will report more than $50,000 raised from approximately 600 donors.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national GLBT rights group, gave $50,000 to Florida Red & Blue, the article said. Florida Red & Blue consists of businessmen and political figures from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

The article cited previous reports in stating that Florida4marriage, which is the website name for Florida Coalition to Protect Marriage, has raised more than half a million dollars since the 2005 beginnings of the petition drive. The Florida Republican Party contributed $300,000, but according to the article, Florida Governor Charlie Crist has indicated that further financial support from the state’s Republican party will probably not be forthcoming.

Polls continue to show that a majority of the general public oppose marriage equality, though that does not necessarily translate into a majority wishing to see the ratification of a constitutional amendment on the issue.

Amendment opponents intend to cast the issue in terms of individual liberties, rather than focusing on marriage per se.

"This is not about gay marriage," said Stephen Gaskill, a spokesman for Florida Red & Blue.

Added Gaskill, "This is about ensuring that people are able to determine their own life choices."

Fairness for All Families’ Gregory Wilson said, "Arizona was a valuable lesson in process that we have learned from."

Added Wilson, "People may have strong feelings about different lifestyles, but as Americans we find it difficult to support discrimination."

While Stemburger admitted that garnering a 60% vote for the amendment would be "a challenge," he also reiterated the stance that the Florida amendment would not take away domestic partnership benefits, saying, "It simply codifies the current law of Florida. It does not prevent domestic partner benefits."

That, of course, remains to be seen, since unintended consequences are just that: unintended, and unforeseen. After all, they said the same thing in Michigan.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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