Kansas gay marriage ban goes to committee

Members of the Kansas house won't vote this week on a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, and some supporters worry about the measure's future. House speaker Doug Mays sent the proposal to committee on Tuesday, endangering efforts of senate Republican leaders to quickly adopt the change and place it before voters April 5. Mays, a Republican from Topeka, said last week that he was inclined to skip a committee review and send the measure straight to the entire house for debate. Senators approved the measure 28-11 on Thursday, just four days into the 2005 session, without holding public hearings.

Mays said Tuesday that he isn't trying to slow down the amendment's progress or change the date of the election. He said it's important for at least one chamber to have public hearings. "Once it comes out of committee, it will run immediately," said Mays, adding that some supporters planned to be out of the statehouse this week but should still be able to vote on the issue. Some supporters, however, were nervous. "Our fear is that if we delay this and put it off, we will lose a lot of momentum," said the Reverend Terry Fox, senior pastor at Wichita's Immanuel Baptist Church.

The proposed amendment also would prohibit civil unions for same-sex couples and would declare that only couples of one man and one woman are entitled to benefits normally associated with marriage. The house must adopt the measure by February 11 for it to appear on the ballot in April, when Kansas holds city and school board elections. Voters' approval by a simple majority would add the amendment to the state constitution.

Opponents argue that the amendment is discriminatory and worded so broadly that it could block private companies from offering health coverage to the partners of gay and lesbian employees--something supporters dispute. "It's a fantastic development because it gives the people of Kansas an opportunity to have input," Patrick Hutchison, chairman of Equality Kansas, a Wichita group opposing the amendment, said of Mays's decision. "This amendment, being portrayed as a gay marriage amendment, is so much more than that."

Mays sent the proposal to the house federal and state affairs committee. Chairman John Edmonds, a Republican from Great Bend, said he would hold hearings as early as January 25, with the goal of sending the measure to the full house by February 1. Edmonds, who supports putting the issue on the November 2006 general election ballot, said the proposal deserves "due diligence." "If you make amendments to the constitution, it is tougher to fix that," Edmonds said.

But Fox said most Kansas residents support the proposal and want to vote quickly. Last year voters in 13 other states amended their constitutions to add bans on same-sex marriage. The amendment mirrors one the Kansas senate approved but the house rejected last year. Adoption of the amendment in the house requires 84 of 125 votes. Backers of the amendment say it would protect the "traditional" definition of marriage--defined in state statute since 1867--from legal challenges. They also say such unions form strong families and are vital to society.

Senate conservatives who sponsored the amendment said they worry there will be an attempt to derail the measure in the house--perhaps by changing its language. The senate would have to review any changes. "The language is fine. The only reason you change the language is if you're trying to hold it up," said Sen. Tim Huelskamp, a Fowler Republican. House minority leader Dennis McKinney, a Democrat from Greensburg, said some house members are concerned the language banning civil unions could pose problems. He still predicted the amendment would receive the 84 votes necessary to put it to a statewide vote. "It's about getting it right and giving people the chance to have their say," McKinney said.

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