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Friday, October 3, 2008

My Home Town News: 'Marriage Protection Amendment' Draws Fire

My Home Town News
'Marriage Protection Amendment' Draws Fire
By Bethany Chambers
October 3, 2008

VOLUSIA COUNTY - The group gathered in an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University classroom last week was as diverse as they get.

Men and women aged 18 to 50-something from Christian, Hindu and Muslim backgrounds representing three continents and several states set aside homework to talk late into the evening about several topics important to them.

It was on only one of those topics that these two dozen Florida voters shared a single opinion.

The Florida Marriage Protection Amendment, or Amendment 2 to the state constitution which will be on the Nov. 4 ballot, is a danger to a free society, said the members of the university's Gay-Straight Alliance.

They fear, they said, that most voters will see the amendment's title and vote yes without learning more.

"Outside of here, nobody has any clue what this is," said Andrew Striker Jr., 21, a Florida native who formed the group at the university a year ago despite protests.

The amendment was placed on the ballot after a petition circulated by the political action committee Florida4Marriage garnered more than 650,000 signatures and survived a review by the state Supreme Court.

The amendment would place the definition of marriage as "only one man and one woman as husband and wife" in the state constitution. If passed, the amendment would mean "no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized."

Florida statute already prohibits same-sex marriage and the state has a "defense of marriage" law, but some municipalities provide same-sex couples limited benefits through domestic partnership agreements. Those benefits could be eliminated with the passage of a constitutional amendment.

Currently 27 states prohibit same-sex marriage in their constitutions and 41 states prohibit it in statute.

The amendment has both fervent opponents and proponents in east Volusia County, many of whom have passed out information and held forums to spread their opinions on the issue.

Supporters such as Steven Burtner, a 21-year-old part-time student from South Daytona, have taken their message to the Internet, with online communities on MySpace and Facebook.

Mr. Burtner, who signed the petition a couple years ago, said he supports the amendment because "the people ... not just lawmakers," should have the right to show their support for heterosexual marriage, and to ensure that marriage stays that way through the constitution.

"The nuclear family has one husband, one wife, one father, one mother," he said. "It's important for kids to have a mom and dad to provide level of support and security that you can't get as well with other forms of family."

Locally the amendment is opposed by the League of Women Voters of Volusia County and Fairness for All Families, a coalition of the NAACP, Florida Consumer Action Network and Florida Alliance for Retired Americans.

Some of the strongest opponents are those members of the ERAU Gay-Straight Alliance, many of whom will be voting for the first time next month.

Jodi Clark, 18, said she felt the amendment was a thinly veiled attempt at combining church and state.

The group's president, Ryan Corcoran, 22, said banning same-sex marriage in the constitution on top of state statute is overkill, a way to create "second-class citizens."

"It makes people think they can't live their life, (and) that they have to stay in the closet," he said.

The amendment is really just a way to increase voter turnout by stirring up anti-gay emotions, said Rick Stickney, an academic advisor at Embry-Riddle.

That's an opinion shared by some members of an Ormond Beach church, who had a discussion on the topic recently.

"It's a wedge issue to get the conservative base out to vote. It's unnecessary, has unintended consequences and is politically prejudiced," said Pastor Bud Murphy of the Unitarian Universalist Society of the Daytona Beach Area. "It's manipulating the electorate."

Domestic partnership rights in danger?

One of those unintended consequences is that the amendment could endanger the rights of those in domestic partnerships, or same-sex or different-sex couples that live together and share benefits such as health insurance without being married.

The state Supreme Court would most likely decide if those in domestic partnerships should be denied rights if the amendment passes.

That happened in Michigan after a 2004 constitutional amendment passed cutting benefits for thousands of elderly couples who formed domestic partnerships instead of remarrying after being widowed, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which opposes the amendment.

"It affects my grandma more than it affects me," Mr. Striker said.

If passed, the amendment could be used as a defense against domestic violence, lowering conviction rates because a couple involved in a dispute are not married, according to the documentation that accompanies the amendment on the Florida Department of State Division of Elections Web site,

The financial impact could also include an increased cost of litigation and public services to taxpayers, while creating increased revenues from marriage licenses from couples who might otherwise lose benefits, according to the site.

Florida4Marriage representatives, who did not return calls for comment, counter that domestic partners in Florida won't lose rights.

Currently, domestic partnerships enact four to nine rights, as opposed to the 1,138 federal rights that come with marriage, according to their Web site

It's a dangerous game of roulette, Mr. Stickney said, that he and other members of the Embry-Riddle Gay-Straight Alliance hope voters will not play.

"I don't like being in a country that says it supports freedom," he said, "but where people are not treated equally and are not free."