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February 24, 2012

Petitions would bring marriage to Ohio

Drive begins for a new constitutional amendment

Columbus--One of the men who led the unsuccessful fight against Ohio’s marriage ban amendment eight years ago is going at it again, this time as a leader of an effort to place a pro-marriage amendment before voters.

Meanwhile, a separate coalition led by Ohio elected officials is signing up their peers on a pledge to support marriage equality.

Ian James was the political director of Ohioans Protecting the Constitution in 2004 when the now-defunct group led a campaign to defeat the amendment, then on the statewide ballot as Issue 1. The campaign was criticized for putting too much money and effort into television ads and not enough into grassroots organizing and field work.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force withdrew support from the campaign out of concern that its message avoided the word “gay” and focused primarily on the possibility that the amendment would hurt businesses in the state.

This time, however, James’ strategy is different. With the rise of social media, Facebook in particular, the entire thing is being built from the ground up.

“We started out with a handful of people,” James said. “A day later we had 100 people, 14 hours later we had 200 people.”

James, who works for Professional Petition Management of Columbus, is using that online support to recruit volunteers for signature-gathering to put a marriage amendment back on the ballot. But this one would allow same-sex marriage while specifically stating that religious organizations would not be “forced” to wed same-sex couples.

“By defining yourselves clearly and making it eminently clear that religious organizations will not be forced to perform or recognize, and lock that into the constitution, we have the ability to say to people who will misrepresent the amendment that it will not happen,” he noted.

Churches already have almost complete authority over who they do or do not marry, up to refusing to marry interfaith couples or couples in which one of the spouses has been divorced. But anti-gay activists often point to marriage equality laws as violating freedom of religion, claiming that they would force clergy to violate their religious beliefs.

In addition to undercutting hard-line opponents who might lie about the effect of same-sex marriage, specifying a religious exemption would “provide all the comforts that we can to those who are soft-leaning opponents, to know that their vote will not open up their church, synagogue, mosque or temple to marriages they do not condone.”

According to James, the amendment has “broad support among religious leaders, people of faith, and people of color that we would never have gotten, had we not put that language in.”

He expects to turn in several thousand signatures to the Ohio attorney general’s office this week. If the language is accepted by the attorney general, it goes to the secretary of state’s office, which gives it to the ballot board.

If the attorney general’s office rejects the language, it will generally provide tips on why it was rejected, so that it can be fixed, more signatures gathered, and it can be resubmitted.

Once the measure is approved for full signature-gathering, they will need 385,245 valid signatures of registered voters, from at least 44 of the 88 counties in Ohio.

James expects that the final petition will be approved for circulation by around March 25.

Assuming the petition drive is successful, there is no set date for which ballot the measure will go on. It might be too late for 2012 to be viable, and 2014 presents problems because of the huge number of volunteers that will be mobilized for the Gay Games in Cleveland, one of the state’s liberal strongholds.

State marriage group formed

While James’ effort is bottom-up, the top-down approach is being used by Freedom to Marry-Ohio, whose efforts have been touted by Equality Ohio in a series of press releases to draw attention to them.

Equality Ohio executive director Ed Mullen found out two days before it was announced on January 20 that the national organization Freedom to Marry was creating a new initiative, Mayors for Freedom to Marry.

At the time, four mayors in Ohio had joined around 70 of their colleagues in joining the initiative, and press coverage of the announcement at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter gathering drew others to sign on as well.

The list now has nine Ohio mayors; Michael Coleman of Columbus is the latest to join.

“After this hubbub about the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry, a grassroots group of people here in Central Ohio started calling their elected officials to see if they would sign on to a similar pledge,” Mullen said. “When their website was launched, we decided to send out another press release talking about the number of politicians who signed onto the pledge.”

The website is managed by James’ office, but the co-chairs of Freedom to Marry-Ohio are not involved in the petition drive he is spearheading, Mullen said. Four of the group’s co-chairs are elected officials.

The one-two punch of efforts in support of marriage equality “has shown me and other members in the community that there has been a dramatic paradigm shift about how people think about our civil rights,” Mullen noted.

While marriage equality is already part of Equality Ohio’s overall agenda--it was founded in response to the ban amendment passing--the timeline for their efforts might be moved up as Freedom to Marry-Ohio gains steam and the petitions start rolling out.

Mullen also pointed to the fact that there is no immediacy in the use of the petition signatures. “One of the advantages of the signatures in Ohio is that they’re evergreen,” he said. “As long as the people stay registered at that address, they’re still valid.”

He also believes that the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland might actually be a boon for the effort, instead of a hindrance with an exhausted volunteer base.

“Having all of these openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from around the world come to Ohio and all the media attention surrounding them might increase the support for our civil rights,” he noted. “I think there will be a huge impact from having the Gay Games here in Ohio in terms of equal rights.”

Equality Ohio is having their eighth annual Leadership Summit on March 3, and marriage equality will be one of the top items being discussed.

“As an organization, having heard from the community at the leadership summit and having our board meeting the night before, we’ll have a much better understanding as to our position in supporting the amendment initiative,” Mullen concluded.

More information about the petition drive and Freedom to Marry-Ohio are available at www.freedomohio.com and www.facebook.com/MarriageEqualityOhio.

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