Ohio Leaders Fight Anti-Gay Marriage Initiative


Republican Gov. Bob Taft and many other Ohio political leaders have come out against an anti-gay marriage initiative that will be on the Buckeye State ballot Nov. 2.

Many in the political establishment here are opposed because they believe the proposal to add an amendment to Ohio's Constitution defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman goes beyond most of the measures approved by voters in six states, as well as measures likely to be approved in 10 other states on Election Day.

Voters in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah will consider anti-gay marriage amendments on Election Day.

Advocates of the Ohio proposal include fundamentalist Christians, the Roman Catholic Church and anti-gay rights activists. These and other supporters put the issue on the ballot by collecting the required 323,000 signatures of registered voters.

While the first part of the proposed amendment would simply ensure that Ohio would never recognize same-sex unions (even marriages recognized in other states such as Massachusetts), it's the second part that has led a coalition of strange political bedfellows to question and criticize it.

The second part states that Ohio will not "create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage."

Ohio State University President Karen Holbrook fears this would stop OSU from continuing to offer health insurance and other fringe benefits to unmarried partners of university employees. She contends that such a restriction could keep OSU from recruiting faculty, administrators, and students.

Leaders of some of the state's largest corporations believe their hiring would also be hamstrung. "They're concerned about the impact it could have on recruiting employees to Ohio and what sort of image of Ohio it might create," says Bob Milbourne, head of the Columbus Partnership, a coalition of 27 of Central Ohio's largest employers, including Nationwide Insurance and The Limited.

Phil Burress, top man at the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, the group leading the push for the amendment, said such fears are groundless. He acknowledges the measure is meant to stop state universities, state government, and Ohio cities from offering domestic partner benefits, but he insists it would not limit companies.

"They (business executives against the measure) know this does not affect private business. These are pro-homosexual activists grabbing at straws," Burgess said.

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, a Republican, sides with opponents of the proposal. He says part 2 of the amendment "will limit the right of private companies" and has publicly announced he plans to vote "no" on it.

Taft and Ohio's two Republican U.S. Senators, George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, share Petro's concerns, as does the 750,000-member Ohio AFL-CIO, the League of Women Voters and the state chapter of AARP. Voinovich says the proposal would make businesses less competitive "in terms of keeping people who are getting the job done for them and attracting people that they think will help them."

Taft signed an anti-gay marriage law into effect last year, but he says the proposed constitutional amendment is not as narrowly drafted and is an "ambiguous invitation to litigation" that takes Ohio into "uncharted waters."

Reservations about the proposal's reach has led the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Columbus Dispatch to editorialize against it. Ohioans should vote no, says the Plain Dealer, because the amendment "has the potential to harm Ohio's already-imploding economy."

A recent poll by the Columbus Dispatch indicates Ohioans favor the anti-same sex marriage measure by a better than two-to-one margin. Similiar ballot initiatives have passed in other states by margins that average 72% to 28%. But opponents are poised to launch TV commercials against it. And if past Ohio political history is any indication, those ads could make the contest closer than the results elsewhere.

During the past half-century, more than 30 citizen-initiated ballot issues have been defeated. The few that were approved included one imposing term limits on legislators and one requiring voters to register at least 30 days before an election.

Backers of the anti-gay marriage proposal insist their measure won't suffer the same fate as most of the other ballot issues. They say their measure is different because so many people tend to strongly identify with traditional marriage.

Bill Cohen covers state politics for Ohio Public Radio.


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