COLLATERAL DAMAGE 


In January, when Florida4Marriage announced that they had received enough signatures to secure a place for Amendment 2 – the so-called “marriage amendment” – on the November ballot, the future looked bleak for the initiative’s opponents. But the seemingly redundant bill that supporters say will only outlaw same-sex unions – a ban that already exists under the state’s Defense of Marriage Act – has come under attack from a new front.

Similar amendments in other states are beginning to have unintended consequences: In early May, Michigan’s Supreme Court made a ruling that now bans domestic-partner benefits for all state and university employees, gay or straight. In 2006, a lawyer for an Ohio man charged with beating up his live-in girlfriend successfully argued that the state’s domestic violence law was unconstitutional because it created a legal status for unmarried individuals, which ran counter to the state’s ban on gay marriage. There were eight other similar cases pending when the ruling was overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court in 2007.

Gay marriage bans in both Michigan and Ohio were presented as a means of banning homosexuals from getting married. In both states, the amendments have challenged the rights of a broader segment of the population.

“The reality is that framing this as a ‘gay marriage issue’ is not really accurate,” says Stephen Gaskill, communications director for Florida Red & Blue, a nonpartisan group opposed to the amendment. Gaskill says that of the more than 369,000 unmarried couples in Florida, only 10 percent are gay. “If they wanted to ban same-sex marriage, they would track the language in the Defense of Marriage Act, which basically says marriage is between one woman and one man, period. But it continues on and discusses the substantial equivalent of marriage. There is no legal definition for that. So what are they really trying to get at?”

The vagueness of the amendment’s wording has put groups like Florida Red & Blue and Fairness for All Families on the offensive. Both are seeking untraditional ways to make their case. They aren’t avoiding the gay aspect of their outreach campaign, but they are expanding it to those most likely to suffer an unexpected loss of rights, notably senior citizens.

“They’re often the ones who don’t remarry for economic reasons,” says Gaskill. “They will be in a committed relationship. A widow can’t remarry or she’ll lose her late husband’s pension. While it’s horrible to think they’re not going to get married because of economic reasons, that’s the reality.”

Florida4Marriage leader John Stemberger disagrees.

“The reality is there is no legal connection whatsoever between a state constitution and federal Social Security law – and our opponents know this,” he wrote in an April posting on the conservative Florida Family Action website. “Shame on Red & Blue for using this raw scare tactic targeting Florida’s seniors! They are trying to deceive Florida’s most vulnerable and precious citizens!”

Amendment opponents counter that because of the broadness of language and the precedents in other states, there are no limits to what Florida4Marriage may attempt. In Tampa, David Caton, the executive director of the Florida Family Association and an active member of Florida4Marriage, was recently called on by the media to explain why he was seeking public records on that city’s domestic-partnership benefits. (Tampa pays an additional $70,000 yearly for 27 employees under the arrangement; Orlando does not offer domestic-partnership benefits to its employees.) Caton said he intended to challenge the use of taxpayer money in funding presumed sin.

“It’s really Florida4Marriage talking out of both sides of their mouth,” says Fairness for All Families spokesman Joe Saunders. “They know that the language of the amendment in Florida is far-reaching and broad, but because that is the argument that will inevitably be their downfall, they want to say, in every space they can find, in every public setting, that it’s only about marriage for gay and lesbian couples.”

He adds, “People need to know that this is a part of a broader agenda from a very far right conservative leadership in Florida that is about creating this very singular idea `of` family.”

Saunders thinks that will put amendment supporters on the ropes.

“I think that we’ve seen Florida4Marriage go on the defensive, which is exactly where we need them to be,” says Saunders. “They can no longer just brush off everything that we’ve been saying about how this is going to affect seniors in Florida, and how it’s going to affect domestic partnerships for straight couples in Florida. Because that’s basically what they’ve been doing.”

bmanes@orlandoweekly.com

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