GAME ON 


Officially, the Florida Coalition to Protect Marriage's push to enshrine in the state's constitution an amendment banning gay marriage began on Feb. 14, St. Valentine's Day, though the writing has been on the wall for some time now. Start with President Bush's call for an anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution last year. Add to it the fact that, outside of a few metropolitan regions, the state is socially conservative and gay-unfriendly. Then add a legislature chockablock with fundamentalists no doubt inspired by the 11 other states – from the Bible Belt to moderate Oregon – that passed anti-gay marriage amendments in 2004. (Oregon's initiative had the closest margin of victory, with 57 percent). For good measure consider that in November, the state's Southern Baptist Convention called on its members to push for this amendment.

It was only a matter of time. Gay activists already have been strategizing, trying to figure out what, if anything, they could do to fight the amendment. They haven't settled on a strategy just yet, though they are girding for a fight. "I think it's a matter of time and education," says Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a Tampa-based gay rights organization. "While we would prefer not to have to fight this kind of bigotry, we will use that arena [to try to swing voters]."

Their chances of success are slim. It's almost a foregone conclusion that, should the Florida Coalition collect the 611,000 signatures necessary to get the amendment on the ballot, and should the Florida Supreme Court approve the language, the amendment will pass. It's a good bet that it would even get more than 60 percent of the vote, which equals a landslide.

Gay rights activists say – and Gov. Jeb Bush agrees – that an amendment is premature and unnecessary. In 1997, the legislature passed a Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of man and a woman. Amendment proponents say they fear that "activist" judges may strike down that law, and the amendment is their pre-emptive strike. As the coalition pointed out at its press conference, there were recently as many as eight separate lawsuits in state and federal court challenging the state's defense-of-marriage law, though the cases in federal court have been thrown out.

"I think it's going to be very divisive," says Orlando city commissioner Patty Sheehan, who is gay. "I just think it's going to amp up a lot of the rhetoric against the gay community. That's what these folks live for."

Lindsey Martin is one of "these folks." In fact, fresh out of the University of Florida law school, Martin, 26, is the spokeswoman for the coalition. She's also a lawyer with Liberty Counsel, a Longwood-based firm that argues religion- oriented cases across the country. (Full disclosure: She went to the same high school I did, a parochial school in West Palm Beach called The King's Academy. We graduated a year apart, and though we weren't close friends, the school was small enough that everyone knew each other.)

"It's really an important issue," Martin says with genuine conviction. "I mean, marriage is so important. It's in crisis across the country."

Martin, who is not married, graduated in 1996 at the top of her high school class. She went to Yale University, then to UF law school, and then actively sought out a job at Liberty Counsel about six months ago.

"I just really liked what Liberty Counsel was doing," she says. "I thought it was cutting-edge. After law school, I said, 'Sign me up.' They do so much cool stuff."

When the groundwork for the amendment campaign began – the coalition is a hodgepodge of Christian groups, including a statewide spinoff of Focus on the Family, Liberty Counsel, Exodus International and others – Martin was drafted as the spokesperson after a discussion of "who could do a good job, who could handle the media backlash, who is articulate, who can handle the tough questions," she says.

The tough questions coming Martin's way are pretty much common sense, when you think about it. So I bounced a few off her to see how she'd field them.

"If I marry, how exactly is my marriage threatened by two gay men taking the same vows and having the same rights under law?" I asked her.

She thought about it for a minute and asked to call me right back, promising a good answer. She did, and it was: "If government sanctions same-sex marriage, they're sanctioning same-sex families and the raising of children in those homes. Is that in the best interest of children?"

"But there are plenty of children raised by one or more gay parents, right?" Our conversation was quickly turning into a mini-press conference.

"That is definitely the exception to the rule," she said, adding that children are best raised with a mother and father; placing them in a situation with two fathers or two mothers would be confusing.

"OK, so what about gay couples who have no interest in child-rearing? Should their rights be restricted, in terms of collecting benefits or, say, emergency-room visitation?" I asked.

"That argument, don't go there with me," she responded. "It's really a straw man. There are a million and one [legal] remedies," specifically legal contracts between gay partners spelling out rights. "Government does not need to sanction same-sex marriage to remedy [that]."

But government does bestow certain rights on married people by common law, rights that gay couples don't have, according to Orlando family-law attorney Michael Morris, who is among the gay rights activists plotting a response to the marriage amendment initiative. "[There is the] privilege not to have to testify against your spouse in a proceeding, inheritance law, tax breaks upon death, Social Security benefits, disability benefits," says Morris.

One tactic being considered by gay rights activists is to counter the amendment with a constitutional amendment of their own pushing civil unions in lieu of marriage. Unlike marriage, in which the rights of partners have been passed down by common law, the rights of partners in civil unions have to be specifically spelled out in statute. Vermont's 2000 civil union law followed a state supreme court ruling that forced that state's legislature to either let gay couples marry or rewrite state code to grant them all the benefits of marriage. The lawmakers opted for the latter. Morris says that other state's civil union laws, such as California, give gay couples some, but not all, benefits.

Mat Staver, the head of Liberty Counsel and the author of the proposed amendment's language, says his initiative would not affect domestic partnerships that are less than the legal equivalent of marriage. "It would prohibit a Vermont civil union from being imported into Florida," he says.

Basically, the amendment would ban gays from entering into marriage or any equivalent, so any civil union laws would have to be secondary to marriage. "It limits marriage," Staver says, then catches himself. "It continues the tradition of marriage and also prohibits anything [being] treated as substantially equivalent."

While a civil union amendment is a possibility, Morris emphasizes that it's premature to say that will definitely be the counterattack. "I don't mean to be so cautious with you," he says. "I don't want to say something's happening when it's not. We don't want to do that unless we know we have the support to do that."

There's evidence that support exists. A March 2004 poll of Florida voters conducted by the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald found that while 65 percent of voters opposed same-sex marriage, 53 percent said gays should be allowed to form civil unions.

"It would be very interesting if we passed conflicting amendments," Morris says.

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