Monday, September 29, 2008

Calif. gay marriage ban sparks 'War of the Rings'

Calif. gay marriage ban sparks 'War of the Rings'

By LISA LEFF, Associated Press Writer

Sunday, September 28, 2008

(09-28) 12:33 PDT San Francisco (AP) --

Gettysburg. Armageddon. The War of the Rings.

Those are some of the superlatives culture warriors on both sides of the same-sex marriage divide are using to convey the urgency surrounding Proposition 8 on the Nov. 4 ballot, which would place a ban on gay marriage in the state Constitution.

To the initiative's backers, nothing less weighty than religious liberty and even the building blocks of society are at stake. To its opponents, the California Marriage Protection Amendment tests nothing more cherished than the American ideals of equality and personal freedom.

All of it is riding on whether voters in the nation's most populous state accept or reject 14 words: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

Proposition 8 is one of three proposed gay marriage bans appearing on ballots around the country this November. It would amend the state Constitution to overturn the California Supreme Court decision earlier this year that legalized same-sex unions.

It will be the first time a marriage amendment goes before voters in a place where same-sex couples — thousands of them since the court's ruling took effect in mid-June — have legally wed.

"There is a sense that this is a potential tipping-point election," said Jon Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. "If voters here accept the concept of same-sex marriage, that will have an effect on the way people think across the country."

By Election Day, the measure's opponents and supporters expect to spend about $40 million — a large amount for a social issue initiative, according to Matsusaka. Volunteers on both sides will have spent thousands of hours getting their messages across to the state's 16.2 million registered voters.

More than 9,500 people from all 50 states and the District of Columbia have contributed nearly $22 million to support or oppose the measure, while institutions have kicked in another $7.8 million.

"The nation will be watching to see what happens with this, second only to the presidential campaign," predicted Tim Wildmon, president of the Mississippi-based American Family Association.

The evangelical Christian lobbying group has given $500,000 and produced a 30-minute video to back the Yes on 8 campaign.

While 27 other states have enacted similar amendments — 23 since Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize gay marriage four years ago — the enormous interest engendered by the California race hinges partly on the state's size and cultural influence, and partly on the initiative's timing. Also, California does not have a residency requirement for getting married, which has allowed couples from elsewhere to come to California and tie the knot.

In Massachusetts, state lawmakers this summer repealed a long-standing ban that prohibited couples from marrying there unless their unions would be legal in their home states.

A coalition of conservative Christian groups, led by an offshoot of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, circulated petitions to put the amendment on the fall ballot even before the Supreme Court ruled on May 15 that California's ban on gay marriage violated the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians.

The move was a pre-emptive strike. The court was then reviewing a challenge to the state's marriage laws, including a gay marriage ban approved by more than 61 percent of California's voters eight years ago. If justices struck down Proposition 22, as the court majority ultimately did, a constitutional amendment would be the only way to reinstate it. An amendment also would prevent the state Legislature from extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Now that couples have tied the knot with the state's blessing, the novelty of California's situation presents the Protect Marriage campaign with a challenge: how to turn back the clock without appearing mean-spirited or out of touch with a mainstream that has become increasingly tolerant of gay relationships.

"In many ways, eight years has been a lifetime in terms of educating people that giving others the right to marry is not going to lead to the destruction of our country," said Craig Rimmerman, a professor of public policy and political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. "If in California the court could rule this way and then the people vote down this referendum, it would be an enormous victory for the lesbian and gay rights movement."

The Yes on 8 strategy for now involves emphasizing the court's role in upsetting the status quo while downplaying what the amendment's passage would mean for gays and lesbians. The campaign's literature and official ballot arguments both state the amendment is needed because "four activist judges in San Francisco wrongly overturned the people's vote" and that "it's not an attack on the gay lifestyle."

Frank Schubert, a veteran public relations strategist who is co-managing the Yes on 8 campaign, said the understated strategy is designed to counter the principle message of gay rights advocates, who are portraying the upcoming vote as a matter of fairness and equality.

"They want people to feel like you are a bad person if you support what has been the definition of marriage since the dawn of time," Schubert said.

By avoiding anti-gay stereotypes and religious references, gay marriage opponents will more effectively reach potential supporters who might worry that backing the measure would get them labeled as "bigots or homophobes," he said.

"The one-fourth of the electorate that doesn't know how they are going to vote, the vast majority, in their hearts they are with us," Schubert said. "We have to give them an environment where it's OK for them to follow their hearts."

Of the more than two dozen states where gay marriage bans have been on the ballot, only one has been defeated. Two years ago, Arizona voters declined to pass a constitutional amendment that also would have also prohibited the state from granting same-sex couples spousal rights through civil unions or domestic partnerships. They will vote on an amendment this November that does not include such a prohibition.

With many prominent Democrats, including Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, saying they favor granting same-sex couples legal recognition that stops short of marriage, the Yes on 8 side also is playing up the fact that gay Californians who registered as domestic partners enjoyed most of the same rights as married spouses before the Supreme Court intervened.

Like the amendment's sponsors, its opponents are crafting a campaign that addresses deeply held beliefs about marriage by relying on exalted imagery.

But instead of focusing on the role of the courts, the Equality for All coalition seeks to convince voters that Proposition 8 is "wrong for California" by framing the debate in terms of democratic values.

"Regardless of how you feel about this issue, the freedom to marry is fundamental to our society, just like the freedoms of religion and speech," reads the No on 8's official ballot argument. "Our laws should treat everyone equally."

To bolster their argument that granting marriage rights to same-sex couples enjoys broad-based support in California, they also are giving supportive religious leaders and straight couples prominent play on the campaign's Web site. Instead of rainbow flags, the campaign Web site features photos of recent newlyweds alongside brief statements about what getting married meant to them.

"I think folks regard themselves as experts on marriage. They know what marriage is, so a lot of this will be plain talk," said Steve Smith, the lead consultant for the opposition campaign. "It's almost like they want to hear it from a neighbor more than a local politician."

Recent polls have shown Proposition 8 securing nowhere near the simple majority of the vote needed to pass. Arnold Steinberg, a veteran Republican analyst, said the amendment's sponsors made a fatal strategic error in not qualifying the measure for the low turnout June election, instead of a presidential election swamped by eager Barack Obama supporters.

Although there was no way of knowing that at the time, the June election came just two weeks after the Supreme Court handed down its decision and two weeks before it became final. As it is now, the electorate will have had five months to get used to the idea of two men or two women getting married.

"The bottom line is the status quo arguments will prevail," Steinberg said. "You have had these marriages licenses granted, and it's closing the proverbial barnyard door."

No comments: