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Florida's
Marriage Amendment Battle Sure to Be a Squeaker

Florida's
Marriage Amendment Battle Sure to Be a Squeaker

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Polls show Florida's gay marriage ban is just shy of the 60% support needed to pass, but the state's complicated demographics make the outcome of the vote anyone's guess. One thing is certain: Amendment 2's sweeping nature would affect far more people than the gays and lesbians it's targeting.

While most of the noise in Florida these days surrounds the heated presidential contest, a less noticed -- but no less profound -- battle looms for the future of equality, fairness, and even pocketbooks in the Sunshine State.

On November 4, Florida voters will choose whether to pass Amendment 2, the ballot initiative that proposes to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. And much like the presidential campaign that tends to overshadow it, the outcome of Amendment 2 remains uncertain, as observers attempt to understand what role African-Americans inspired by the Obama candidacy might play in the decision.

"It's not clear it's going to pass, it's not clear it's going to fail, and it's also not clear how the presidential race is going to affect it," says Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which handles Florida polling.

Quinnipiac's latest poll released on September 8 suggests that Amendment 2 remains short of the 60% approval it needs from voters to pass, though it's still within range. The poll showed that 55% of voters support the ban, and 41% oppose it, with a margin of error of +/- 2.6 percentage points. Those findings are down slightly from the 58-37 majority that favored the amendment in a previous poll in June.

But Brown isn't drawing any conclusions from the change in those numbers. "That doesn't really tell me anything," he said of the shift.

Nationwide, Florida joins Arizona and California as one of three states with constitutional amendments aiming to ban same-sex marriage on the ballot. But unlike the proposals in those states, which seek strictly to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, Amendment 2 includes an additional clause that would essentially preclude the provision of any other type of legal recognition that approximates marriage for same-sex couples.

The full text of Amendment 2 reads, "Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized."

Given its vague wording, opponents fear the amendment could have a potentially devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of Florida couples -- gay and straight -- who live in legal arrangements other than marriage.

"The amendment could interfere with health care benefits, hospital visitations, inheritance -- virtually any concrete area in which a couple might wish to provide for their partner to have some rights," said Joseph Jackson, associate director of the Center on Children and Families at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in Gainesville.

Jackson compares Florida's initiative to the 2004 amendment banning same-sex marriage in Michigan, where in May the state supreme court decided that the measure prevents public institutions from offering health care benefits for same-sex partners.

Though Florida already has laws prohibiting same-sex marriage and preventing recognition of such unions performed in other states, supporters of the so-called Florida Marriage Protection Amendment contend the proposal is a necessary guard against "judicial activism" of the sort that prompted gay marriage victories in Massachusetts, California, and as of last week, Connecticut.

Orlando attorney John Stemberger, who leads Florida4Marriage, the official sponsor of Amendment 2, did not return calls seeking comment. He is also president of the Florida Family Policy Council, which is associated with James Dobson and Focus on the Family.

Amendment 2 has received tepid support from Republican governor Charlie Crist, who criticized the state Republican Party for giving $300,000 to Florida4Marriage. The PAC produced the 611,009 signatures required to put the amendment on the ballot in February.

Despite apparent obstacles, Amendment 2 opponents have reason to feel cautiously optimistic they can defeat the measure, mostly because the 60% approval threshold is higher than the 50% required for similar amendments in other states, including California.

"So far, none of the polling has shown them crossing that 60% threshold," said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida and a leader of Fairness for All Families, a coalition of over 260 civic-, faith-, and social-justice groups assembled to defeat the measure.

The sweeping nature of the initiative and its threat to other types of unions, like domestic partnerships or common-law marriages, also builds opposition because it has implications beyond the gay and lesbian constituency. Many seniors, for instance, are widowed but live together with partners rather than remarry in order to maintain their survivor benefits from a deceased spouse's pension. ?

"Their base is the ultraconservative Christian organizations and they've talked to them in their churches already, whereas our constituency is the general population," said Michael Kenny, deputy campaign manager for Florida Red and Blue, an independent, bipartisan organization campaigning to defeat Amendment 2, which has the support of the Gill Action Fund.

Certainly, the extreme nature of Amendment 2 suggests that it was intended to excite social conservatives in an election year when Democratic voter registration is outpacing Republicans by 2 to 1, according to the Florida Division of Elections. According to The Miami Herald, more than 613,000 new people registered to vote in the state, the country's fourth most populous, from January through late September, and analysts agree many of them were prompted by the Obama candidacy. But whether the "O factor" translates seamlessly into defeat for Amendment 2 is anyone's guess.

Florida Red and Blue's Kenny says both Obama and his wife, Michelle, have spoken out against Amendment 2, though it's not a centerpiece of their campaign; designated surrogates, such as out Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon, have addressed it while stumping for him in the state.

"The question is," says Quinnipiac's Brown, "do voters agree with him for reasons of ideology or on the issues, or are they for him for other reasons, like change?"

Of particular interest is the influx of voters who may be economically liberal yet lean conservative on social issues, such as Catholics, Latinos, and African-Americans. African-Americans, who alone accounted for 109,361 of the new registrations from January through September and went overwhelmingly Democratic, represent the largest addition of an ethnic or racial group to either main party.

Although the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has strongly opposed the amendment, some groups such as the High Impact Leadership Coalition -- a national organization that rallies churches and community leaders around moral issues -- are organizing a religious appeal to the black community to vote for the measure.

"Proponents of Amendment 2 have mobilized critical elements within the African-American community with the potential to impact voters within its community," says Pamela Burch Fort, president of the Commerce Group, a Tallahassee-based political consulting firm. "Large numbers of first-time voters, confusion over the substantive issue, along with a strong belief in biblical teachings, is certainly cause for concern."

In late September, part of a survey by St. Petersburg Times and TV station Bay News 9 found that 65% of black respondents said they would vote for Amendment 2. No data on black support for the amendment is available from the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

"Unfortunately, it's blurry," says Patrick Egan, an assistant professor of politics at New York University, when asked to project how African-American voters might impact Amendment 2.?

But two things are apparent, says Egan. First, survey data consistently shows that blacks are generally less supportive of gay rights than whites, even when researchers control for religiosity as measured by church attendance, which blacks demonstrate in higher numbers. However, there is also evidence that when blacks vote, they do not vote to ban same-sex marriage at rates any higher than whites, who personally express more favor for it.

For instance, according to CNN exit polls, when constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage bans were on 11 state ballots in November 2004, blacks in Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and Oklahoma were less likely than whites to vote for them.

"Blacks can go against what they personally believe," says Egan. "It could go either way."

Strategists say that whether the swelling ranks of African-American voters will choose to support Amendment 2 could hinge on how the issue is framed. ?

"It will depend a lot on making this about morality or not," says Ray Block, assistant professor of political science at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "If Amendment 2 is being discussed in the pews, and it's something that's being discussed in terms of what pastors deem to be right...then a lot of support could depend on that."

But even if the Obama campaign were to take a more vocal, rights-based position against the marriage ban -- which seems unlikely in a contest now driven by economic issues -- some doubt his view could influence conservative Democrats who support the ballot initiative.

"African-Americans are going to be a major part of Obama's vote in Florida, but that doesn't mean that they're going to be voting no on the ballot initiative," says David A. Bositis, senior research associate in national black electoral politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.

"Because it's a ballot initiative, and no party affiliation appears next to it, African-Americans are not going to be much help, and probably are going to represent some kind of risk, in having it passed," Bositis says.

Although Bositis predicts a 60% approval for Amendment 2 among voting African-Americans, he cautions strongly against the conclusion that the outcome rests on any one group among the state's more than 10 million registered voters.

"This is not going to pass or fail simply because of black voters," Bositis says. "Latinos, and a significant amount of whites outside the panhandle, would need to vote for it."

In that case, one needs to consider the potential countereffect of youth, the other demographic where Obama has made overwhelming gains -- and which consistently supports gay rights at a higher rates than other groups.

Perhaps, as Ray Block suggests, the most certain aspect of Amendment 2 is what cannot be known.

"There's a whole lot of precedent we don't have for this election," he says.?

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