Ohio’s leading LGBT groups continue to disagree whether 2014 or 2016 is the right year to place same-sex marriage legalization on the ballot, even as one of the groups moves forward with its efforts to secure a public vote on the issue within a year.
The ongoing conflict could decide when Ohio will join Utah, New Mexico and other states that have legalized same-sex marriage since a 2003 court ruling made Massachusetts the first U.S. state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
FreedomOhio claims it now has the 385,247 signatures required to get marriage equality on the ballot on November 2014. Ian James, executive director of FreedomOhio, says the organization is working to gather 1 million signatures by the July deadline for the ballot issue.
But other LGBT groups, including Equality Ohio, Why Marriage Matters Ohio and the Human Rights Campaign, remain cautious about placing the issue on the ballot so soon.
Michael Premo, manager for the Why Marriage Matters campaign funded by Equality Ohio, says marriage equality will land on the 2016 ballot at the latest. It’s just a matter of building consensus among state and national LGBT supporters over the right timing.
Until then, FreedomOhio and Why Marriage Matters are taking markedly different approaches to the issue as the former engages in a ballot effort and the latter runs an education campaign.
In FreedomOhio’s favor, a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on Dec. 6-8 found 56 percent of Ohio voters would favor a constitutional amendment that legalizes same-sex marriage but allows exemptions for religious organizations, with a margin of error of 3.1 percent.
But the same poll found Ohio voters within the margin of error — 47 percent in favor and 48 percent in opposition — on the general question of same-sex marriage legalization.
James says the results don’t give him pause. “Voters like concepts, but they vote upon specificity,” he claims.
James argues that even though Ohioans still appear evenly divided on the issue of same-sex marriage, the poll shows the specific constitutional amendment FreedomOhio is pushing has the widespread support required to win in 2014.
Premo isn’t so certain. He says other concerns need to be addressed before a consensus is reached among LGBT groups in favor of the ballot issue.
“We’re not sure that we’re there yet,” he says. “That one poll is just one variable that we need to look at. We need to look at fundraising, we need to look at what kind of staffing we can get, we need to look at what other organizations are going to be available to participate, we need to look at what the opposition is going to be able to do.”
One of the central concerns, according to Premo, is whether a 2014 campaign could get the fundraising and organizational support, particularly from national players involved in the same-sex marriage debate, necessary to defeat what will likely be an equally large campaign from Ohio’s religious right. Premo says building a consensus among LGBT organizations is key to getting that financial and organizational support from outside entities.
For now, Why Marriage Matters is content conducting an education campaign that aims to grow support for marriage equality across Ohio. As one example of the group’s efforts, Premo cites the “home for the holidays” initiative the campaign launched during December to encourage Ohioans to discuss same-sex marriage and its merits with family members and friends during holiday celebrations.
“We can’t win marriage equality unless we talk to people who don’t agree with us currently. Everyone who doesn’t agree with us currently is a potential supporter in the future,” he says. “They don’t come over right away. These conversations take time.”
The time requirement is particularly central to several LGBT groups’ concerns. Although polls indicate that the movement toward marriage equality is inevitable as younger generations begin to vote, it’s unclear to several organizations whether 2014 is too soon.But Premo at least says 2016 is a guarantee, especially with his organization’s efforts fully underway in the next couple years.
James disagrees on the timing. Emphasizing the most recent poll numbers, he says other organizations have missed the undercurrent of support building for marriage equality.
“While others may have asked us to wait, we worked. While others urged patience, we planned,” James says. “Thus far, our planning and working has built a consensus with 56 percent of Ohio voters that we’ll take into next year and solidify and build upon.”
While the groups debate timing, legal battles in the past year have notably changed the tide in favor of marriage equality. On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act with a ruling that effectively required the federal government to begin recognizing same-sex marriages for couples married in states where the practice is legal.
In recent weeks, federal courts used the precedent to legalize same-sex marriages in New Mexico and Utah. In Ohio, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black on Dec. 23 cited constitutional grounds to force state officials to recognize same-sex marriages on death certificates.
James praises the rulings, but he cautions that any legal challenge could take years to work up to the highest courts. And once the challenges get there, it’s possible the courts could punt on the issue altogether and once again leave it to state officials or voters to decide the legality of same-sex marriage.
“Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that if we just sit back in our La-Z-Boys that justice is going to be handed over to us tomorrow. That’s not reality,” James says.
From that perspective, James describes FreedomOhio’s ballot initiative as a more certain path forward.
“You pursue litigation, but you also pursue a ballot process,” he says. “This is the right way to go. You don’t just hang back and wait.”
For his part, Premo approves the multifaceted approach. Coming from New Jersey, a state that legalized same-sex marriage through a mix of legislative and legal battles, Premo says every avenue needs to be tried to speed up the process as much as possible.
“We’re winning marriage equality in states across the country,” he says. “It’s however we can get there fast in a way that we’re guaranteed to win.”
And if that approach comes to a ballot initiative in 2014, Premo acknowledges his organization wouldn’t stand in the way — even if it disagrees with the timing.
“There is no doubt that we’re going to support any initiative that guarantees marriage equality for all loving and committed couples,” he says. “To what level we would participate is not my call to make. It’s not one person or one individual or one organization’s call. It’s a consensus opinion.” ©