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Wisconsin, other
states become same-sex marriage battlegrounds

Wisconsin, other
states become same-sex marriage battlegrounds

When it comes to statewide votes on marriage, the score so far is 20-0 in favor of keeping it a one-man, one-woman institution. If there's a chance to break the streak on November 7, it might be in Wisconsin, where activists believe that support from unions, college students, and church leaders--coupled with hoped-for conservative apathy--could enable them to finally overcome the string of losses. Among the hopeful are Debbie Knepke and Candice Hackbarth, devoted partners for nine years, raising a 3-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son in a pleasant Milwaukee neighborhood. They have joined some 8,000 other volunteers in a bid to defeat a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages and civil unions. ''It makes us mad that the Christian conservatives are so against us,'' said Knepke, 41. ''If they came into our house, they'd find we're no different from anybody else. We're every single thing they consider good parents to be.'' Eight states will vote on anti-marriage equality amendments in November, following 20 that previously approved such measures. Passage is considered certain in Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee, but gay rights strategists believe their side is at least competitive in Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Supporters of banning same-sex marriage remain confident of victory, but optimism also is high in the ranks of Fair Wisconsin, a coalition that has been fighting the proposed amendment since it surfaced in the legislature in 2004. Large labor unions, many religious leaders, and top Democratic officials--including Gov. Jim Doyle--have spoken out against the measure. ''This could be the state where we beat this thing,'' said Fair Wisconsin campaign chief Mike Tate. ''I'm not saying it's easy, but we've got the right ingredients on the table.'' Tate believes the same-sex marriage issue, which helped motivate conservative voters in 2004, is no longer commanding the same urgency, possibly diminishing conservative turnout. One reason is the recent court rulings in New York State and Washington State against same-sex unions, leaving Massachusetts as the only state allowing same-sex marriage. The head of the rival campaign, Julaine Appling of Vote Yes for Marriage, said her side may wind up being outspent and out-advertised, but she believes Fair Wisconsin's confidence is misplaced. ''It's a gross misunderstanding of the people of Wisconsin,'' she said. ''They are good solid stock. They understand that marriage is a good public institution--it's appropriate to protect it as the union of a man and a woman exclusively.'' There have been no major opinion polls since mid August, when a survey showed Appling's ''Yes'' side with 48% support, compared with 40% against the amendment. Tate says the gap is narrowing as undecided voters tilt against the measure; Appling believes the final result will be in line with Michigan and Ohio, where similar measures prevailed with roughly 60% support in 2004. One of Appling's allies, Marquette University political scientist Christopher Wolfe, believes the amendment will pass, though perhaps narrowly. ''It's certainly a lot closer than the people favoring the amendment would like,'' said Wolfe, who observed that even at his Roman Catholic school many students oppose the ban. Tate, at 27 a veteran of numerous campaigns, believes campuses statewide will provide vital support for his side. ''This is a motivating issue for young people, whether they're gay or not,'' he said. While Milwaukee and the state capital, Madison, tend to veer leftward, the rest of the state is generally more conservative. But opinions are deeply divided. Among those opposing the amendment is Sue Werblow, 60, a longtime school board member in Oshkosh whose three children include a gay son now practicing law in Seattle. ''I would hope and pray people will stand up for nondiscrimination in our constitution, but it's anybody's guess,'' she said. Her son, observing from afar, ''thinks we're going to lose this battle.'' Kathleen Mentink, a college instructor in Eau Claire who favors the amendment, said most people in her area share her position, ''but it's a quiet support.'' Some voters, she suggested, have been wary of revealing pro-amendment views for fear of being depicted as narrow-minded. Debbie Knepke finds it hard to be dispassionate. Because the children she helps raise, Sienna and Nolan, were borne by Hackbarth, Knepke has no legal standing as a parent and fears passage of the amendment would dim her chances of ever gaining such recognition. ''It's the living in fear of what might happen,'' she said, fighting back tears. ''I can't imagine, if something happened to Candy, that I would not have my children.'' The campaign has divided Milwaukee's black community. U.S. representative Gwen Moore is among several black leaders opposing the amendment, while the ''Yes'' campaign has recruited a cadre of black pastors who are urging their congregations to support it. Among them is the Reverend Walter Harvey, pastor of the 2,500-member Parklawn Assembly of God. ''Those who oppose the amendment are more aggressive in their advertising for a reason,'' he said. ''The burden of proof is upon them--they have a longer hill to climb, more people to convince. They will ultimately lose.'' Moore, a single mother, vehemently objects to the second sentence of the amendment, which would ban civil unions and other legal arrangements ''substantially similar'' to marriage. She worries that such terminology could spawn litigation challenging all sorts of informal family relationships, including benefits her own children have received from their father. Appling insists that domestic-partnership benefits will not be banned as long as they don't parallel marriage rights. But Moore contends the amendment betrays Wisconsin's politically progressive tradition. ''A constitution is a sacred document--we use them to confer rights on people, not to write in discrimination,'' she said. ''It's completely the wrong vehicle for this kind of negative activity.'' In addition to Wisconsin, three other states--Arizona, Colorado, and Virginia--are viewed by gay rights strategists as having closely contested campaigns this fall over proposed constitutional amendments that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions. A brief look at the campaigns: ARIZONA: If this election is close, it will be because of a section of the proposed amendment that would bar local governments and state-run schools from recognizing any relationship similar to marriage, such as civil unions or domestic partnerships. Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon, among others, has criticized the measure, saying a ban on domestic partnerships could hurt the city's ability to recruit skilled employees. Bruce Merrill, a pollster and political scientist at Arizona State University, says roughly two thirds of Arizonans favor limiting marriage to one man and one woman, while an almost equally large majority support domestic partnerships. He suggested some Arizonans oppose the amendment simply because they view it as government intrusion into private matters. ''If there's a frontier mentality left, it's in mountain states,'' he said. ''There's an attitude of 'Leave us alone.''' COLORADO: This campaign is unprecedented because, in addition to the amendment to ban same-sex marriage, there is a separate measure placed on the ballot by gay rights supporters that would establish the legality of domestic partnerships providing same-sex couples with many of the rights of married couples. Both measures could be approved, both could lose, or one could prevail but not the other. The showdown has drawn some large contributions: $500,000 for the marriage ban from the political arm of the Colorado Springs-based Christian ministry Focus on the Family, and an even larger sum for the domestic-partnership measure from a foundation overseen by software millionaire Tim Gill, a major backer of gay rights causes. VIRGINIA: Recent polls show Virginia's ban likely to win approval, but opponents have mounted a strong campaign, raising more than twice as much money through August as the ban supporters. Opponents of the measure include Gov. Timothy Kaine, a Democrat, who says some of its provisions might impede legislators if they wanted to extend legal recognition to unmarried couples in the future. Dave Fleischer, a political organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, commended the activists running anti-amendment campaigns in all these states but said they remain underdogs. ''Whether we have a chance or not, once it's on the ballot, we don't have a choice but to give it everything we've got,'' he said. ''If we don't fight these, the message we send is that we're a safe group for fundamentalists and right-wing bigots to attack--it's like wearing a sign that says, 'Kick me.''' (David Crary, AP)

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