Dispatch from the Sundance Film Festival
Losing Sleep

Florida Fairytale or Tale of Terror?

Courting Equality Draft a constitutional amendment that is divisive and sweeping in its possibilities for endangering committed and established relationships of all Floridians, straight and gay, and call it the "Florida Marriage Protection Amendment." Make sure that it’s ambiguous enough to ultimately be able to do away with domestic partnerships that are recognized in a number of Florida municipalities. Use seemingly transparent language, "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." Consider the legal arguments that can be hung on "substantial equivalent."

Just pretend that the amendment is aimed only at preventing the marriage equality of same-sex couples and that it is vitally needed. Posture that the 1997 Florida Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) statute is not solid enough to prevent "activist" judges from undoing it. Keep up the pretense for four years as you gather the requisite 611,009 signatures to place the amendment on the November 2008 ballot. When you get 612,192 signatures by late December 2007, weeks before the February 1, 2008 deadline, hold a press conference in Orlando and announce it with fanfare.

Start preparing to host Marriage Sundays and Citizenship Sundays in churches throughout 2008 in the run up to the November 4 election. Matt Staver, chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel based in Orlando, advises church leaders that this is all legal. He also counsels them on where to set up tables, what to preach about, how to conduct seminars and conferences to support the so-called marriage amendment. He’s available to help in any way. Liberty Counsel has been fighting marriage equality nationwide for years.

Depending on one’s commitment to equality this scenario sounds like a Disney fairytale or a tale of terror emanating from Orlando. Besides the Liberty Counsel and Disney World, Orlando also happens to be the home base for Florida4Marriage and its chair John Stemberger, who is also the President and General Counsel of Florida Family Policy Council. Behind Stemberger and Staver are the other national stars for inequality, in particular Focus on the Family leader James Dobson along with its policy analyst Glenn Stanton who is still pushing his skewed research about same-sex parenting that is not recognized by any respectable academic or professional body.

The fairytale that Florida would become the 28th state to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage came up against reality on January 10th. Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning announced that signatures from Miami-Dade County had been double counted in a computer error and Florida4Marriage needed 22,000 more signatures by the Feb. 1 deadline to get their amendment on the ballot.

The Florida Baptist Witness editorialized on January 21st, “Since Florida Baptists have been in the lead of this vital effort since its beginnings, it’s incumbent upon our churches to mobilize in the next few days to ensure the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment reaches the 611,009 threshold of necessary petitions..." The Witness also cautioned that it might be a good idea to get 50,000 signatures just in case... After four years, this just occurs to them? To make the Feb. 1st deadline they’ll need to have all their petitions in the Florida4Marriage office on Presidential Primary Day, January 29th.

In what Stemberger has dubbed a "constitutional emergency," he has called upon the Family Research Council and the American Family Association to help get signatures and perhaps cook up a legal strategy. He’s tight on cash, especially since the Florida Republican Party spigot got turned off when Jeb Bush left office and Republican Bill Crist, an original signer of the petition, became governor and then turned his back on "marriage protection." This despite Stemberger’s past role as the state Republican Party political chair. Crist now declares that education, global warming, skyrocketing property insurance costs, and the housing market crisis are more pressing issues for Floridians. How sensible.

While the disarray that has struck the "marriage protection" fairytale could give me heart that there is justice, I still see their movement as an instructive stealth tale of terror. These anti-gay activists will not go away--in Florida or across the country. And they still may get the 22,000 signatures or cook up a lawsuit against the state.

Their proposed amendment and the 27 others already passed in states across the country do not protect heterosexual marriage. Worst of all the Florida amendment, in an attempt to preserve second-class citizenship for LGBT citizens, jeopardizes domestic partnerships. Health benefits, hospital visitation rights, and medical decision-making privileges for all unmarried couples gay and straight are on line. This includes many heterosexual seniors who are increasingly entering into domestic partnerships to pledge commitment and still protect their pensions and social security. Public employees in Florida in domestic partnerships, such as teachers, university employees, police officers, and firefighters, will be the losers.

Michigan public employees have learned this lesson and employees at universities in Ohio and Kentucky are currently under threat. Voters in Michigan in 2004 were tricked into believing domestic partnerships would not be threatened. The courts decided otherwise. In 2007, Arizona voters turned down a "marriage protection" amendment for exactly this reason.

Floridians are being educated about this by Fairness for All Families a coalition of close to 200 local, national, and state organizations including the NAACP, SEIU, the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, Equality Florida, and Florida Red and Blue. In early January, Fairness acquired a powerful civil rights ally and spokesperson, Julian Bond, Chairman of the NAACP, who joined former US Attorney General Janet Reno and others on the Fairness Honorary Board. In speaking of the proposed constitutional amendment, Bond asserted, "It is divisive. It’s harmful. It does not bring people together. It drives them apart.'

For the presidential primary on January 29th, volunteers trained at nine sessions across the state by three full-time members of the Human Rights Campaign partnering with Florida Red and Blue will be at the polls prepared to talk with voters about the harmful effect of the Marriage Protection Amendment. Of course amendment proponents will also be at the polls, at least in the early part of the day, trying to collect the necessary 22,000 signatures. Joe Saunders of Fairness for All Families says, "Our opponents will probably be pulling out all the stops, but we’ll be prepared. We’re focused on getting out our message of fairness. That's what Floridians believe in and want."

Let's hope the fairytale is put on pause on February 1st and the real American story of fairness is embraced by all Floridians.

In June and November of 2007, I spent a fair amount of time in Sarasota with Equality Florida and Fairness for All Families getting out the story about the Massachusetts marriage equality victory and our defeat of a proposed constitutional amendment in the legislature. Our book Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America’s First Legal Same-Sex Marriages (Beacon Press, 2007) inspired Florida’s LGBT community and its allies with hope and raised their expectations. I’ll be returning to Florida for at least a week in April/May 2008 working with the Stonewall Seacoast Democrats, Fairness for All Families, and Equality Florida to continue to educate people about our families and our need for family protections. Read more at www.courtingequality.com.