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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sun Sentinel Editorial: Constitutional Ban Would Protect Bigotry, Not Marriage


Constitutional Ban Would Protect Bigotry, Not Marriage
Michael Mayo News Columnist
May 20, 2008

Two recent court decisions give ammunition to both sides of the gay marriage debate in Florida.

Proponents of an amendment banning same-sex marriage point to last week's ruling by the California Supreme Court allowing gays to wed and say, "See, these activist judges are exactly why we need to vote a ban into the Florida Constitution."

And gay-rights activists look to a recent Michigan Supreme Court ruling, which ends certain benefits for domestic partners, and say, "See, this is why the ballot proposal is so dangerous — these bans don't just stop gay marriages but also strip benefits that have already been established."

They both might be right.

So there'll be a lot at stake on the Florida ballot come Nov. 4, when Floridians will decide on a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Amendment 2 needs 60 percent approval to pass.

State law already prohibits same-sex marriage.

"What happened in California can happen in Florida overnight," said John Stemberger, who heads the Yes2Marriage group pushing for the ban.

"We're more concerned about the Michigan ruling because it shows that you can have benefits taken away," said Stephen Gaskill, spokesman for Florida Red and Blue, which opposes the amendment. "The supporters always say that's not their intention, but there's a tremendous bait-and-switch at play here."

Stemberger argues that nobody has lost benefits because of the Michigan ruling and it's had the practical effect of opening benefits to more people because of revised eligibility criteria. He also said the Florida ballot language would not impact existing rights or benefits of same-sex domestic partners.

If Amendment 2 passes, the constitution would read: "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."

It's that second clause that has so many people concerned. Would it mean the end of benefits like health insurance for gay partners? How would it impact the 4,109 registered domestic partnerships in Broward County, most of whom are same-sex couples?

"We didn't want to get in this benefits argument," Stemberger said.

Said Gaskill: "Then why didn't they just end the sentence with, 'Marriage is the legal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife.' He's never given a proper accounting of what the 'substantial equivalent thereof' means."

Mathew Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, wrote the ballot language. He said he crafted it so that Florida would not have to recognize same-sex civil unions from Vermont, which he called "a parallel system to marriage."

"It's not designed to eliminate domestic partnerships in Florida," Staver said Monday. Fine. Then why not spell that out with an extra sentence. Something like, "This provision shall have no impact on existing benefits or rights."

"There was no need to," Staver said.

"The irony is this language protects domestic partnerships because it's not even close to the substantial equivalent of marriage," said Stemberger. "It's crystal clear."

Sure. As clear as mud.

I don't like anything about Amendment 2, starting with its title: "The Florida Marriage Protection Amendment."

A more accurate title: "The Florida Marriage Exclusion Amendment."

As a married man, I still don't get how banning two consenting adults of the same sex from marrying protects marriage. If gays were allowed to wed, I'd still be married, and other heterosexuals could still marry. It would just open the marriage pool to more people.

Instead of blocking others' options, I just wish the people behind this amendment would concentrate on their own lives.

Like antiquated laws barring interracial marriages, a ban on gay marriage doesn't protect the institution. It just prolongs bigotry.

Michael Mayo's column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Read him online weekdays at Reach him at or 954-356-4508.