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Anti-gay issue could shake up the fall election

Published April 27, 2006
Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune - LINK

Buoyed by signs of deep trouble among its foes, Chicago's Gay Liberation Network held a little party in a North Side bar last week.

"Join us as we celebrate the failure of far-right forces in Illinois to get an anti-gay referendum on the November ballot," their invitation said.

For several months, the Illinois Family Institute has been circulating petitions calling for an advisory referendum item opposing gay marriage that reads: "Should the Illinois Constitution be amended to say, `To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, a marriage between a man and a woman is the only legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State'?"

Voters have said yes to this idea in 19 out of 19 states in the last eight years. The biggest margin of electoral victory was 72 points (86 percent to 14 percent) in Alabama; the narrowest, 14 points (57 to 43) in Oregon.

But the Illinois Family Institute appeared to be having difficulty getting the 283,000 voter signatures it will need to put it on the ballot in November. The Glen Ellyn-based organization originally set an April 20 deadline for volunteers to send in petitions (they must be filed with the State Board of Elections by May 8), but recently pushed that deadline back 10 days; it also canceled a large rally against gay marriage in Broadview.

"Their campaign of hate didn't take off," said Liberation Network spokesman Bob Schwartz.

Not so fast, said the institute's project director, Dave Smith. Calling the gays' celebration "premature, at best," Smith said the petition drive was extended simply to accommodate thousands of people who want to participate, and his group canceled the Broadview rally simply because "it wasn't the best use of our time."

Smith declined to say how many signatures have been collected but said he has "no doubt" they will get enough.

If so, the referendum question could be a significant electoral wild-card and provide a big boost to independent state Rep. James Meeks, a prospective gubernatorial candidate and Baptist minister who would be the only candidate supporting the referendum item.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka and Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich are opposed to gay marriage, but both also are against amending the state constitution, campaign officials said. An amendment is unnecessary, officials said, because a 10-year-old state law already declares that "a marriage between two individuals of the same sex is contrary to the policy of this state."

But social conservatives are eager to create a constitutional bulwark against "what happened in Massachusetts," Smith said, alluding to the approval of gay marriage by the commonwealth's high court. And they are alarmed by the enactment in January of sweeping laws in Illinois prohibiting discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered people.

They are also no doubt alarmed by a recent poll showing a sharp drop in opposition to gay marriage--from 63 percent in 2004 to 51 percent today.

And many polls show public approval for "civil unions," marriagelike legal contracts between homosexual partners--contracts endorsed by both Topinka and Blagojevich that would be forbidden if the Illinois Family Institute's amendment were ever enacted.

In short, the vote on this issue could be very close, and therefore very hard-fought. If it's on the ballot, core voters in both parties are likely to turn out in big numbers.

Social conservatives will be desperate to drop a constitutional anchor against the tide of history, while social liberals will be eager to drill a big hole into the anti-gay-marriage boat.

"I'm anticipating three to four months of outrageous, disgusting anti-gay rhetoric and harassment," said Rick Garcia, head of the gay rights group Equality Illinois that is planning to challenge the institute's petitions and the state's leading gay activist. "As we've seen in other states, these campaigns can be brutal."

Smith said: "The people are simply going to tell the legislature that marriage is for one man and one woman only. This amendment is necessary. They want it."

On one thing, Smith and Garcia agree: The real celebrations will come later.


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