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Petition drives at the heart of marriage battle on state level

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Politicians in Washington may be hesitant to act on the issue of same-sex “marriage,” but citizens in Arkansas, Oregon and a handful of other states aren’t.

Facing fast-approaching deadlines, pro-family groups in at least six states are collecting signatures on petitions in hopes of placing state constitutional marriage amendments on the ballot this fall.

Petition drives in Arkansas and Montana appear to have succeeded, while drives in Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio and Oregon continue.

Already, legislatures in seven states have sent state constitutional amendments to their citizens for a vote later this year. If all six of the petition drives succeed, then more than a quarter of all states -– 13 –- will be voting on state marriage amendments.

“I’ve done a number of petition drives over my 20 years in this position, and I have never had any kind of response like we’re getting,” Mike White of the Oregon Family Council told Baptist Press. “Now, the fact that we’re getting tremendous response doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk.

“Nobody in Oregon history has qualified statewide a constitutional amendment in five weeks. No one’s even come close. We’d be kind of making history.”

Because of court delays, Oregon groups did not begin collecting petitions until the fourth weekend in May.

Nationwide, most of the petition drives are in part a reaction to events in Massachusetts, where that state’s high court issued a ruling legalizing same-sex “marriage.” Massachusetts has no constitutional marriage amendment, and the groups in Oregon and elsewhere don’t want to see such a ruling duplicated in their home states.

While five of the six states already have laws banning same-sex “marriage,” those laws can be struck down in state courts. State constitutional amendments cannot.

“We want to prevent what happened in Massachusetts,” Chris Stewart, executive director of the Arkansas Marriage Amendment Committee, told BP. “We don’t want five judges to write an opinion and decide for the state what will happen with marriage. We want to give the citizens of Arkansas the opportunity to vote on how marriage will stay, and that’s one man and one woman.”

The Arkansas Marriage Amendment Committee has collected some 130,000 signatures, far ahead of the 80,500 required by early July. Montana’s deadline has already passed, although the Montana Family Foundation said it had collected 70,000 signatures, surpassing the 41,000 required. Those now have to be certified.

Groups in Oregon must collect some 100,000 signatures by early July -– a tall task that rests largely on the response from churches. But, like pro-family groups in others states, Oregon supporters are hoping to gather much more — around 130,000 to 150,000 signatures -– just to be on the safe side in case several thousand signatures are tossed out as being invalid. White did not want to speculate as to how many signatures had been gathered.

Michigan citizens must turn their petitions in by early July, while North Dakota and Ohio citizens face an early August deadline.

Stewart said the effort in Arkansas has been exceptional.

“We’re very pleased,” he said. “This was a total grassroots organization.”

Southern Baptist churches, Stewart said, have helped lead the charge. He said he spoke one Sunday at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock, Ark.

“We gathered a thousand signatures [there],” he said. “That’s been happening all over the state. I’ve spoken to more Southern Baptist churches than I have any [other], and every time I go there most everyone signs the petition.”

But state amendments have their limitations. While they can prevent a pro-same-sex “marriage” ruling in state courts, they nonetheless can be overturned in federal courts, where Nebraska’s marriage amendment is being challenged. Because of that limitation, pro-family groups are supporting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Stewart hopes that the groundswell of support in Arkansas emboldens that state’s congressional delegation to support a Federal Marriage Amendment. The U.S. Senate has scheduled a debate on the amendment for the week of July 12.

“What the amendment effort here in the state has done has brought awareness to the citizens that they can make a difference on an issue,” Stewart said. “… It’s going to make an impact on what our representatives and senators think in Washington, D.C., that are from Arkansas. We’re going to use this amendment effort in Arkansas to say, ‘Look, here’s how your people feel about the issue of marriage as one man and one woman.’”
For more information about the national debate over same-sex “marriage,” visit

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  • Michael Foust