Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Should state ban same-sex marriage? in Florida

Should state ban same-sex marriage?

The Florida Times-Union

July 30, 2007

By J. Taylor Rushing,
Capital Bureau Chief

TALLAHASSEE - From where John Stemberger sits, the prospects for putting a same-sex marriage ban in the Florida constitution are very bright.

Stemberger is an Orlando attorney leading, the group working to send voters a proposed constitutional amendment on the subject on the November 2008 ballot.

"There are boxes and boxes of petitions piled as high as the ceiling in the hallway outside my office," said Stemberger, also head of the Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council Inc. "We're definitely going to have way more than we need."

Sometime in the coming weeks, Stemberger said his group intends to submit the petitions - a total of 611,009 signatures are required, but Stemberger estimates he has 750,000. The Florida Supreme Court has already approved the amendment's language.

Launched in February 2005, the proposed amendment "protects marriage as the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife and provides that no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized." To pass, it must receive 60 percent of the vote.

The proposal appears to have galvanized an unlikely coalition of opponents. They include the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, the Florida chapter of the NAACP and the Florida Consumer Action Network, in addition to gay-rights groups such as Equality Florida and First Coast Pride, which represents Jacksonville's gay community.

Their concern: Banning same-sex marriage could cause courts to strip away other rights, such as domestic partnership benefits for heterosexual couples like elderly Floridians who may live together outside of marriage for convenience, economic or security reasons.

Their proof: A decision earlier this year by a Michigan appeals court that Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage, adopted in the November 2004 election, may bar cities from offering health care for same-sex partners of public employees. That has quickly prompted legal battles in other states as well.

On the defensive

Opponents of the amendment concede that it will make the November 2008 ballot, and have already shifted their attack to an "awareness campaign" highlighting the recent court decisions and the potential legal impact beyond the gay community.

"It's been a wake-up call," says Nadine Smith, executive director of Tampa-based Equality Florida. "Our challenge is to peel back the math and make sure people understand the harmful effects this could have."

The coalition opposing the amendment calls itself Fairness For All Families, and has raised about $75,000 in direct and in-kind contributions, according to state records. But it is not the only opposition coalition: Florida Red & Blue Inc., a South Florida-based group, has raised $984,000 toward the same effort.

The Florida Coalition to Protect Marriage has raised $438,000, with $300,000 coming from the Republican Party of Florida and another $90,000 from such groups as the Florida Baptist Convention, Florida Catholic Conference and Focus on the Family.

Considering future impact

Republican leaders have mostly stayed out of the campaign since a public flap in February, when Gov. Charlie Crist suggested the party should be focused on other issues. Crist repeated that stance Tuesday but also said he supported the amendment itself.

"I haven't changed my mind," Crist said. "I probably would vote for it, but I don't think we need to spend money on it."

Stemberger said his opponents are using "scare tactics" and that Florida courts have already established that the state's laws against same-sex marriage do not threaten domestic partnership benefits.

"If Disney or Palm Beach County wants to give medical benefits to domestic partners, those rights are still available," Stemberger said. "The other side is using deception, and they know it."

But Gregory Wilson, a St. Petersburg political consultant and founding member of the Fairness for All Families coalition, said the group is simply noting the danger.

"How does anyone presume to know how the Florida Supreme Court could rule on this?" he said. "We're not presuming that. But there is now precedent for domestic partner benefits in another state being taken away, so why do you want to take that risk?",

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