Saturday, September 29, 2007

Daytona Beach News-Journal

September 6, 2007

by Jim Saunders

Tallahassee -- As an Iowa court decision refuels a national debate about the issue, Floridians appear headed toward voting next year on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages.

Backers of the proposed amendment are getting close to having enough petition signatures to put the issue on the November 2008 ballot, potentially setting up a major political fight.

Florida already has a law that prevents gay and lesbian couples from marrying, but it's not part of the constitution.

Orlando lawyer John Stemberger, who is leading efforts to pass the amendment, said Florida needs to put the ban in the constitution because a judge could overturn the current law.

An Iowa judge last week struck down that state's ban on same-sex marriage, briefly allowing gay couples to wed. The decision was later stayed, pending an appeal.

"Iowa is Exhibit A for why the marriage amendment needs to be codified in the constitution," said Stemberger, president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council. "Massachusetts (the only state that allows same-sex marriages) is exhibit B."

But many opponents argue such bans discriminate against same-sex couples, preventing them from having the same rights as heterosexual couples.

Also, Damien Filer, a spokesman for a coalition called Fairness for All Families, said the proposed Florida amendment could have far-reaching implications for gay and straight unmarried couples.

Filer said, for example, it could affect health care and other benefits that some government agencies provide to their employees' domestic partners. He said people aren't aware "just how broad the impacts of this could be."

Stemberger said, however, the wording of the amendment would not affect such benefits. He called those arguments a "scare tactic."

Same-sex marriage has been a major issue since 2003, when a ruling by Massachusetts' highest court cleared the way for gay and lesbian couples to marry.

In all, 27 states have constitutional provisions that prevent same-sex marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona voters defeated such a proposal in 2006.

Supporters of the Florida amendment need to submit 611,000 verified petition signatures by Feb. 1 to get on the ballot. They had more than 594,000 as of Wednesday afternoon. Also, they need to meet varying signature requirements in at least half of the state's congressional districts.

But Stemberger said it's too early to declare that the issue will go before voters, as lawmakers this year made the ballot-initiative process harder.

As an example, lawmakers made it possible for voters to revoke their petition signatures, adding uncertainty for groups trying to get on the ballot.

If the amendment reaches the ballot, it will need approval from 60 percent of voters to pass. That's because of a 2006 change that increased the number of required votes to pass constitutional amendments, up from a simple majority.

Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor who studies state politics, called the 60 percent requirement the "real wild card."

Jewett said he thinks the amendment will probably pass if it's clear the measure only blocks same-sex marriage. But he said voters might be less likely to support the amendment if it's viewed as potentially taking away benefits from unmarried partners.

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