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Published: 6/3/2012

Betting on Ohio's evolution on gay marriage

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

In 2004, more than three out of five Ohio voters agreed to write into state law a definition of marriage as “a union between one man and one woman.” Next year, voters here may get to legalize same-sex marriage.

Have Ohioans, like President Obama, evolved enough on the issue to approve such a reversal? Mary Jo Kilroy is confident of it.

Ms. Kilroy, who represented the Columbus area in the U.S. House from 2009 to 2011, is CEO of Freedom-Ohio Inc. The grass-roots group seeks to persuade voters to allow Ohio to join the eight other states (and the District of Columbia) that have authorized same-gender couples to marry and obtain the legal and economic benefits that marriage confers.

“We’re seeing a seismic shift in voters’ attitudes all over the country,” Ms. Kilroy told me last week. “Americans value fairness in the way we treat each other.

“It’s wrong to treat so many Ohioans as second-class citizens,” she adds, “to deny loving couples the right to marry and enter into committed relationships and raise a family. People should not have to face this kind of discrimination every day.”

FreedomOhio is working to place a proposal on the 2013 ballot that would amend the state constitution to guarantee that two consenting adults, whatever their gender, can marry in the state. It excludes brothers and sisters, first cousins, and bigamists; those prohibitions in state law wouldn’t change.

Under the proposal, religious institutions still could choose whether or not to perform and recognize same-sex marriages. That language ensures that the amendment will preserve First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom, Ms. Kilroy says.

If voters enact the “freedom to marry” ballot initiative, it would repeal the 2004 state constitutional amendment — the Ohio equivalent of the federal Defense of Marriage Act — that also prohibits civil unions. A federal appeals court ruled late last week that the act unconstitutionally denies benefits to married gay couples.

Ohio’s marriage ban, like the federal law, is at least as much an economic, legal, and civil-rights issue as a moral and religious matter. Married couples enjoy some 1,400 rights and benefits that same-gender couples are denied, according to a federal tally.

Among them: joint parenting, adoption, custody, and visitation; next-of-kin status for hospital visits and medical decisions; joint insurance policies and tax returns; divorce protections such as child support and community property; inheritance; bereavement and sick leave, and annuities and pension benefits.

Ian James, FreedomOhio’s cofounder, grew up in Athens County. He married his husband in Canada in 2003; they now live in Columbus. He notes that they have spent more than $8,000 in lawyers’ fees to gain some of the same legal protections that heterosexual Ohio couples achieve with a $50 marriage license.

Mr. James argues that the marriage ban continues to deprive Ohio of talented workers who don’t want to endure state-sanctioned bias at their expense. Removing the ban, he says, also will advance efforts to combat bullying of students who are gay or thought to be gay.

“Folks who are gay are good neighbors,” he says. “They want to work and participate in society and be who they are. Ohio needs to remove the unwelcome mat.”

To get the proposal on the November, 2013, ballot, the Freedom to Marry campaign must collect 386,000 valid signatures from Ohio voters in the next 13 months. Ms. Kilroy says the campaign, which is composed mostly of volunteers, did not have enough time to prepare the proposal for this year’s crowded ballot.

Another consideration may lurk in the results of a poll of Ohio voters released in mid-May by Public Policy Polling. The survey firm reported that poll respondents said they opposed gay marriage by 52 percent to 35 percent. Although young Ohio voters favor same-sex marriage by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, the poll found, older voters rejected it by even a greater spread.

These findings, while only a snapshot in time, appear to place Ohio behind the curve nationally. According to an ABC News poll late last month, most Americans say they think gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry legally. A Gallup poll conducted before President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage last month found that support nationwide has risen from 42 percent in 2004 to 50 percent last month (53 percent in the Midwest).

FreedomOhio has made progress on qualifying for next year’s ballot. Last month, the Ohio Supreme Court threw out a bogus legal challenge to the initiative. State Attorney General Mike DeWine and the state ballot board have certified the proposal’s language.

The campaign is circulating petitions in each of Ohio’s 88 counties, as well as online (FreedomOhio.com). It is sponsoring weekend rallies at county courthouses, where Ohioans get marriage licenses and judges perform civil weddings. It is enlisting gay-rights leaders and groups in its coalition.

Resistance remains: Last month, voters in North Carolina approved a ban on same-sex marriage. But Ms. Kilroy points to recent endorsements by Mr. Obama and other top administration officials, the NAACP, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former President Jimmy Carter, and rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z as evidence that sentiments continue to shift in favor of marriage equality.

“All families deserve the respect this law would bring them,” she says. “Young people in particular are demanding a fully equal society.

“You can feel the momentum building. The time has come for Ohio to talk about this, and to change.”

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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