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Anti-Gay Fla. Initiative Will Appear on Nov. Ballot

by Kilian Melloy
Sunday Feb 3, 2008
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A Florida group’s ballot initiative to amend that state’s constitution and ban marriage equality squeaked through on Friday, just making the deadline.

The result means that in November, Florida voters will decide on the fundamental legal rights of gay and lesbian families.

Although Florida already has a law on the books specifically denying gay and lesbian families marriage equality, anti-gay proponents of the amendment fear that a court decision could, at some point in time, overturn that legislation, allowing same-sex couples access to the protections of matrimony.

Opponents of the measure say that the ballot initiative is less about protecting the exclusive right of heterosexuals to marry than it is about turning out conservative voters in this year’s presidential election.

In 2006, a number of states saw ballot initiatives approved by voters that changed the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian citizens. Of the twenty-seven states where such proposed amendments have appeared on the ballot, only one state--Arizona--saw the measure defeated by voters.

Opponents of the ballot initiative in Florida hope to see the measure voted down there as well, and have already launched a drive to educate voters as to the dangers they say the proposed amendment poses to straight unmarried couples.

Elderly couples are especially vulnerable to the amendment, opponents say, while anti-gay promoters of the measure dismiss those warnings as "scare tactics."

Either way, as the Orlando Sentinel reported on Feb. 3, both those in favor of the amendment and those working to see it defeated have said that the inclusion of the initiative on the ballot will bring out conservative voters come election day.

The Orlando Sentinel quoted Republican Party of Florida spokesperson Erin Van Sickle as saying, "It’s absolutely going to drive conservatives to the polls."

Said Van Sickle, "It’s a Republican issue. It’s a conservative issue."

As such, the Orlando Sentinel reported, the ballot initiative may well provide a Florida boost to the Republican candidate for the Oval Office. Florida is worth 27 electoral votes to whichever Democratic or Republican hopefuls secure their party nominations.

The Sentinel article quoted Barbara DeVane, who serves as the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans’ state secretary.

Said DeVane, a retired school teacher who also is a founding member of Fairness for All Families, a coalition of groups opposed to the measure, "The other reason they’re doing it is to bring out the hard-core, fundamentalist, right-wing base of Republicans for the presidential election."

As reported at EDGE last week, members of Fairness for All Families were out in force at the Jan. 29 Florida primary to educate voters about the proposed measure, which they say could harm the state’s unmarried heterosexual couples as well as gay and lesbian families.

The group pushing for the amendment, Florida4Marriage, was also out at the primaries, talking to voters and gathering signatures. A last-minute setback for the group looked like it might dash the approval of Florida4Marriage’s petition to get the initiative onto the ballot in November when 27,000 signatures were found by state election officials to have been counted twice, leading to a race against time to get more signatures to meet the requirement of 611,000 signatures.

In the end, the group gathered 649,000 signatures, but up until the petition was certified by the state’s Election Division on Friday, just before the deadline, anti-gay marriage opponents were worried that election officials might not be able to get to the new signatures in time, due to the demands of the primary.

But the last-minute push for signatures is not the only hurdle the measure faces. Recent changes in Florida law now makes it necessary for voters to approve constitutional amendments by a margin of 60 per cent, rather than a simple majority.

Though proponents of the measure have said that the amendment, if approved by voters, will pose no harm to unmarried straights, the concern is that the wording of the measure might well be used subsequent to the adoption of the amendment in court challenges to benefits for the partners of both straight and gay couples.

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," wording that some fear could lead to the end of benefits for the unmarried partners of both gay and straight couples.

There is also worry that the state as a whole could suffer if workers and, especially, companies decide that such language in Florida’s bedrock law makes the state hostile to diversity.

The Sentinel story quoted Orland businessman Steve Kodsi, who is a developer and restaurant owner.

Said Kodsi, "Even if you believe same-sex marriage is wrong, you shouldn’t be glad to send a signal to the world that we don’t believe in diversity."

Proponents of the measure have sought to cast the amendment in simpler terms, given how both sides credit voter education efforts in Arizona in derailing that state’s 2006 attempt to constitutionally ban marriage equality.

The Sentinel story quoted attorney Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of the group Liberty Counsel, who, with his wife, also an attorney, wrote the text of the proposed amendment.

Said Staver, "This is a marriage amendment."

Continued Staver, "The opposition tried to change the focus to benefits and scare tactics."

The Sentinel story included quotes from Florida citizens on both sides of the issue. One, Yvette Comeau, a business owner, voiced concern that the issue of marriage equality "deflects us from the real issues that we need to pull together on."

A retired security guard named Hubert Brizard, however, was quoted as saying, "If they want to be partners, that’s fine," but that, "There is no such thing as two-men marriage."

Added Brizard, "I would say it’s against nature."

The Sentinel also quoted Mildrfed Fernandez, the Commissioner for Orange County, who said, "Gay marriage--I would never be for that."

Added Fernandez, "I’m too conservative. The gay community understands that."

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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