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ELECTION 08: Fla. marriage amendment must get super-majority of votes to pass

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a special series of stories focusing on the election that Baptist Press will run between now and Nov. 4. Stories will run on Wednesdays and Fridays.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP)–It might seem odd at first, but supporters of a constitutional marriage amendment in Florida won’t be happy if on Election Night their proposal receives only a simple majority of votes.

That’s because a new law approved by voters in 2006 requires all constitutional amendments to get a super-majority of 60 percent of the votes in order to pass. If the proposal — known as Amendment 2 — gets only 59 percent, it fails.

It’s a high hurdle, but one that Amendment 2 backers are cautiously optimistic they can reach. After all, they’ve overcome several obstacles just to get this far.

They survived a lawsuit in 2006 by the American Civil Liberties Union, which attempted to have the amendment stricken from the ballot; the Florida Supreme Court, though, issued a unanimous ruling in favor of supporters.

Then, earlier this year, Amendment 2 backers, needing 22,000 signatures in the final two weeks before the deadline in order to pass the state-required 611,000 mark, gathered an eye-opening 92,000. Supporters had thought they had passed the requirement more than a month earlier — and even held a press conference to celebrate — but a state audit determined that thousands of Miami-Dade County signatures had been counted twice, requiring the two-week blitz.

The 60-percent hurdle is but the latest obstacle on a long road for Amendment 2 supporters, who initially had hoped to get the amendment placed on the 2006 ballot but fell about 150,000 signatures short. They began gathering signatures in 2005. (State law allowed those signatures to carry over and count toward qualifying it for the ’08 ballot.)

If passed, Amendment 2 would prevent any state court in the nation’s fourth most populous state from legalizing “gay marriage,” as has happened in California, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“The rules kind of changed on us mid-steam,” John Stemberger, chairman of Yes2Marriage.org, the main organization supporting the amendment, told Baptist Press. “When we started it was 50 percent and now it’s 60 percent. We’re the only state in the country that has that unique hurdle. But we’re up for the challenge.”

The fact that courts in two states, California and Connecticut, legalized “gay marriage” this year has helped Amendment 2 supporters stay on message.

“The No. 1 thing that most reporters and most pundits and our opponents say is, ‘Gay marriage is already outlawed, so this is a waste of our time,'” Stemberger said. “California and Connecticut — and Massachusetts for that matter — are exhibits A, B and C in real time right before our eyes of what can happen if we do not protect marriage in the state constitution.”

Amendment 2 opponents, though, have borrowed a page from Arizona — where an amendment was defeated in 2006 — and are attempting to make the debate over the proposal about anything but “gay marriage.” Opponents have focused on a clause in the amendment stating that “no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized” in Florida. That language is designed to prohibit Vermont-style civil unions — or civil unions under a different name — which grant homosexual couples all the legal benefits of marriage. But the No on 2 campaign argues something very different and has launched television commercials saying the amendment “could take benefits away from senior couples.” As the narrator speaks, pictures of elderly couples are shown, with text on the screen saying the amendment “hurts seniors.” “Gay marriage” is never referenced.

Stemberger believes the biggest obstacle to the amendment’s passage is not the 60-percent bar but “distortions” promoted by opponents. The strategy in Arizona worked: About half of seniors opposed that state’s amendment.

“The greater challenge is getting people to understand that the issue is about marriage and it’s not about taking away senior’s benefits,” he said. “Our opponents have an extremely disciplined and streamlined messaging system. Their primary argument is that this is government intervening in people’s private decisions. But that could be nothing further from the truth. In fact, the constitution is the only document where the law doesn’t rule the people; the law rules the rulers. … The challenge is to cut through the message of our opponents, who are very well-funded and will outspend us and are making arguments that have nothing to do with the amendment.”

Recent polls show the amendment shy of the 60-percent goal. An Oct. 19 South Florida Sun-Sentinel/Florida Times-Union poll of 600 likely voters showed the amendment at 53 percent, while an Oct. 8 Mason-Dixon poll of 625 likely voters had it at 55 percent. The good news for conservatives is that constitutional marriage amendments historically have outperformed polls come Election Day. But Stemberger says the amendment won’t pass if churches don’t get involved in promoting it.

“This is our moment in history. It will not pass unless churches respond,” he said. “Every institution of society has bought into the assumption of our opponents [about gay marriage], and the only institution remaining in society that has the ability to draw a line in the sand on this issue is the church. Hollywood, the media, the education institutions, the courts, corporate America all have bought into this. So the church is the last remaining institution that understands God’s design for marriage and can really be an affective cultural change agent to making sure we draw the line here.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. To learn more about the Florida marriage amendment and how you can help it pass, visit Yes2Marriage.org.

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  • Michael Foust