Note to Republicans: Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.
You wanted to outlaw gay marriage by putting a ban on it in the state constitution even though same-sex matrimony is already illegal by state law as a means of showing just how far you'll go to "protect" marriage. (And you also wanted it on the ballot to rally the base in a potentially tough election year.)
But there won't be any such amendment on the ballot in 2006, because the conservative group behind it couldn't get enough signatures to put it there. And that's weird. Aren't there approximately a trillion evangelicals in this state drooling over the prospect of banning gay marriage in the state constitution?
Of course there are. And this amendment didn't die for lack of popular support; it died because of shortsightedness on the part of the right-wingers who wanted it the most. But conservatives learn fast. This amendment will return, bigger, stronger and meaner. The battle is over but the war isn't.
Back in 2004, after voters had mandated such abominations as high-speed rail and smoke-free workplaces, the GOP-controlled Legislature decided the people of Florida should no longer have such a loud voice in determining state law. So they made it much harder to amend Florida's constitution. Overwhelmingly, voters agreed.
The new law says groups gathering petitions to get an amendment on the November ballot have to collect 611,009 verified signatures by Feb. 1 of election year, five months earlier than before. In theory, the extra time gives lawmakers a chance to respond to voters' demands in a legislative session before the November vote. In practice, pushing up the deadline makes it more difficult for the subjects to challenge their masters in Tallahassee.
No problem for initiatives that people really want, right? That's what Florida4Marriage.org thought when they announced their campaign on St. Valentine's Day 2005. Even gay activists assumed the amendment would have an easy time getting on the November 2006 ballot. Polls suggested that if it got there, it would pass. But when the clock ran out on Feb. 1,
Florida4Marriage.org was 155,000 signatures short. Florida4Marriage.org blamed the system. "No state, including California and Texas, requires as many signatures to gather as does Florida to amend its state constitution. A volunteer-run state petition effort of this magnitude has never been done before in the United States."
The trouble with that argument is that two other amendments (both owing success to paid signature gatherers) gathered enough signatures to make this year's ballot. One, if approved by voters, would create an independent commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts; the other would increase anti-tobacco funding.
Gay-rights activists are more than willing to claim victory for their side. "We see this as a sign that Florida voters have looked more closely `at` how mean-spirited and discriminatory this amendment really is," says Stratton Pollitzer, South Florida regional director of Equality Florida.
But it's premature to say that Florida voters looked discrimination in the face and didn't like what they saw.
Under Florida law, Florida4Marriage.org's signatures are good for four years, which means the group only has to get 155,000 more to make the November 2008 ballot. Or the Florida Legislature could place the amendment on this year's ballot on its own.
For the amendment to ever reach the ballot, it's got to clear the Florida Supreme Court. But the ACLU filed a brief claiming the amendment's language violated state law. The Supreme Court slated oral arguments for Feb. 8, with a decision expected in coming weeks. (State law mandates that the court rule by April 1 of the year the amendment reaches the ballot, which means a ruling could come as late as April 2008.)
According to the ACLU, the amendment violates Florida's strict single-subject rule, because in preventing gay marriage it would also ban civil unions or even domestic partnership agreements, both of which are issues that poll much better than gay marriage. The ACLU also argues that Florida4Marriage.org's ballot summary injects emotion by using coded language. The summary reads, "This amendment protects marriage as the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife. …" Of course you can't "protect" something unless it's in danger, argues the ACLU.
Should the court side with the ACLU, Florida4Marriage.org's signatures will likely be tossed, and the group will have to start over. That would mean that, once again, the gay-marriage amendment would be hindered by a technicality, not necessarily because it's out of sync with Sunshine State voters.
And there's another possible roadblock to getting the amendment through, again orchestrated by the very people who would like to see it passed into law.
This year, lawmakers may ask voters to approve an amendment requiring that future amendments get 60 percent of the vote to become law, instead of the majority required now. This change would make it harder to amend the constitution. Liberals typically support direct democracy especially with the Republicans' stranglehold on the Capitol but this could be gay rights groups' best friend.
The anti gay-marriage amendment was practically assured a majority. A 2004 poll by the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald found that 65 percent of Florida voters opposed same-sex marriage. So denying the homo-haters the super-majority that the state might require in 2008 is a possibility.
In any case, gay rights groups have two more years to convince voters not to insert discrimination into the state's ruling document. Good luck.
(Additional reporting by Nada Taha)[email protected]