Petition Drives to Ban Gay Marriage Succeeding
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
The state-by-state push for constitutional bans on same-sex marriage is moving forward in Arkansas, Michigan, Montana and Oregon, where ballot initiative groups appear to have collected far more than enough signatures to place amendments before voters in November.
Despite legal challenges by gay rights supporters designed to delay signature-gathering efforts and invalidate petitions, same-sex marriage foes submitted record numbers of signatures in these states. If the petitions are validated by state election officials, it will bring to eleven the total number of states that will vote on constitutional gay marriage bans this fall.
Arkansas, Michigan and Oregon are considered battleground states in the upcoming presidential election, prompting charges that conservatives are using the gay marriage debate as a wedge issue to inflame their base and get out the vote in November.
"Clearly conservative activists have seen this as a window of opportunity to put a divisive issue on the ballot that will help them in the general election," said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that advocates left-leaning ballot initiatives.
Supporters of the traditional definition of marriage deny this, asserting that the triggering event was a November 2003 Massachusetts high court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the Bay State and thrust the issue onto the national stage.
In a backlash against the Massachusetts ruling, which took affect May 17, lawmakers in Congress and statehouses nationwide have said constitutional gay marriage bans are the surest way to keep gay marriage from being recognized elswhere.
Such amendments have passed legislatures and will go before voters in seven states: Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah. The issue goes before voters first in Missouri, where Democratic Gov. Bob Holden placed the amendment on the August primary ballot. Louisiana voters will decide next on September 18, and the rest will vote during the general election in November.
Same-sex marriages are already outlawed in all of these states through so-called "Defense of Marriage Acts," laws passed shortly after Congress created the 1996 federal law of the same name that allows states to forbid same-sex couples the right to wed. But gay marriage opponents fear that these laws may be overturned in court.
"We decided that the only way to protect Arkansas was to raise the marriage law to the level of the constitution, and we're going to give the people a chance to vote on that," said Chris Stewart, a lawyer from Little Rock, Ark., who helped draft the amendment petition for the Arkansas Marriage Amendment Committee. The group turned in 200,693 signatures July 1, one day early and more than twice the 80,650 they needed.
The development in Arkansas marked a four-for-four victory for citizen-groups trying to put marriage amendments on the November ballot.
On July 5, supporters of the traditional definition of marriage in Michigan turned in 475,000 signatures more than the 317,000 needed to put a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage before voters in November.
On June 30, supporters in Oregon turned in 244,000 petition signatures, more than twice the 100,840 signatures needed and the largest pestition drive in memory, election officials said.
On June 18, Montana advocates turned in more than 70,000 signatures far more than the 41,020 needed.
Citizen initiative drives in North Dakota and Ohio have until August to collect the required signatures. Also still considering gay marriage amendments are lawmakers in Delaware and North Carolina.
Now, advocates for and against the amendments are turning their attention to the fall campaign, when millions of dollars are expected to be spent on both sides of the issue.
The campaigning is already heated in some cases: a gay rights activist in Pontiac, Mich., claimed she was shoved and verbally assaulted by a marriage amendment petitioner; in Oregon, the Defense of Marriage Coalition delivered its petitions to state officials in an armored truck with guards.
"All that love the sinner but hate the sin stuff is garbage. This is obviously a campaign of hate and intolerance against gays and lesbians," Sean Kofosky, spokesman for the Michigan Triangle Foundation, said.
The success anti-gay marriage groups have had in collecting signatures is expected to translate into victory at the ballot box. However, gay rights advocates promise to wage a fiercely contested campaign against the amendments, although they admit they are outnumbered and out-funded in most states.
"I don't anticipate we will be able to prevail in many of these states, but we will wage a very strong campaign," said Seth Kilbourn, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocacy group.