Groups begin talk of ballot wording
by Cynthia Laird
Not only is there debate over just when marriage equality proponents should return to the ballot to restore same-sex marriage in California, there is also disagreement about the exact wording for an initiative.
Draft language is being worked on now. In addition to wording that repeals Proposition 8, which eliminated same-sex marriage, several groups are working on language that would provide a religious exemption and address school curriculum.
Prop 8 proponents used both religion and school lessons to great effect during last year's fight, and the No on 8 campaign was slow to respond to television commercials that stated kids would be taught about same-sex marriage in school. That issue continues to vex marriage equality proponents, as evidenced by polling data that was unveiled during a leadership summit in Fresno last month.
That data showed that 64 percent of those surveyed agreed that issues about gays and lesbians should be discussed at home, not in public schools, compared to 30 percent who disagreed with that statement. The poll, by David Binder of David Binder Research and Amy Simon of Goodwin Simon Victoria Research, also showed that when language is included in the initiative spelling out that the measure is "not intended to, and shall not be interpreted to, modify or change the curriculum in any school" support for same-sex marriage stands at 50 percent, which is a few points higher than the survey question that just asked about same-sex marriage.
Gay rights leaders are aware of the volatile issue of children and schools. But even as they acknowledge that the anti-same-sex marriage side uses that issue, they warn that if the ballot language is too broad, it risks affecting pro-LGBT laws designed to teach tolerance in classrooms.
"That's too broad," Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors said of the sample language used in the Binder-Simon poll. He added that such wording could be interpreted to mean that nothing about last year's Prop 8 fight could be taught in the classroom.
"That's history," Kors said.
The wording used in the Binder-Simon poll is the same as wording in a proposed ballot measure that was filed with the secretary of state's office by Yes on Equality, a grassroots group that formed last November following Prop 8's passage. Chaz Lowe, who has been working full time with Yes on Equality for the last six to seven months, told the Bay Area Reporter that the ballot proposal is a placeholder, so that marriage equality proponents have something on file should it be decided to go to the ballot in November 2010.
Lowe also said that after discussions with LGBT family and school groups, it has become clear there are concerns with the language.
"It's a working draft," Lowe told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview Tuesday. "If nothing else, it gives us something to fall back on."
He said that the ballot language, which he developed with attorneys, likely would change before it is finalized.
"I'd be very surprised if what we filed wound up being what is used," Lowe said, adding that ballot language will be a topic at the next leadership summit that's scheduled for July 25 in the Inland Empire, in southern California.
Lowe said that among those he has spoken with are Our Family Coalition and Gay-Straight Alliance Network, two San Francisco-based organizations that work with LGBT families and school students, respectively. Heads of both groups told the B.A.R. that they do have concerns with ballot language, though each acknowledged that it's not their area of expertise.
Judy Appel, executive director of Our Family Coalition, said that she favored an approach that did not include specific ballot language around curriculum issues, but instead, that any future campaign develop effective strategies to "look at fears underlying the messaging around schools," that the Yes on 8 campaign used last year.
Appel also said that the hard work to address those fears needs to begin now, well in advance of any campaign.
"The work we're doing now, consistently, is part of changing people's hearts," Appel said. "Whether it's part of a campaign in 2010 or 2012, we need to do that work all the time."
Carolyn Laub, executive director of GSA Network, said the main thing to keep in mind is to "make sure no harm is done to young people in schools."
Nothing should be in any ballot language, she said, that would "create a chilling effect on safe schools work."
While she noted that there are "good intentions on the part of folks working on ballot language" for a future campaign, she advocated a cautious approach when it comes to the curriculum issue.
"We did see a spike in harassment targeting LGBT students and same-sex parents last fall after Prop 8 passed," Laub said.
Laub also said that GSA Network favors waiting until 2012 to repeal Prop 8.
"We think 2010 is too early," she said. "We think we need to do more work to respond to messaging around schools."
The openly gay Lowe, who declined to give his age, other than to say he's "at least a quarter of a century" old, echoed other gay leaders who have said they are leaning toward returning to the ballot in 2010. No formal decision has been made, though Lowe said discussion of that question also would take place at next month's summit.
Groups, including EQCA and the Courage Campaign, have polled their members, the majority of whom favor returning to the ballot next year. EQCA and Courage officials have said that broad community input is needed to make a decision.
Kors said that further research is necessary, along with continuing conversations with the numerous groups and individuals who have become involved with securing same-sex marriage since last November's election.
"What is the best chance of winning and [doing] no harm," Kors said. "You don't want something that will harm LGBT equality, but something that voters understand exactly what they're voting on."
Hence, the ballot language is a critical part of any repeal effort.
"The last thing undecided voters see in the booth is the ballot language." Kors said.
In addition to the issue of kids and schools, the ballot language likely would contain wording making it clear that religious groups would not have to perform same-sex marriages if such unions go against their faith. When this question was asked in the Binder-Simon survey, support for same-sex marriage stood at 52 percent.
Kors pointed out that, as reported in last week's B.A.R. , EQCA used similar language when it sponsored then-Assemblyman Mark Leno's Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act bills in 2005 and 2007. (Both were vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
"Clearly no clergy shall have to perform services against their will and repealing Prop 8 doesn't require anything to be taught in schools," Kors said in an interview last week.
Kors said that EQCA has tried for years to pass inclusive curriculum legislation, only to see bills such as then-state Senator Sheila Kuehl's SB 1437 (2006) vetoed by the governor.
"I believe if the governor had signed that several years ago and we had inclusive curriculum, Yes on 8 wouldn't have been able to use that," Kors said, referring to the kids and school issue.
Kors and Lowe both agreed that to get a repeal measure on the ballot in 2010, paid signature gatherers would have to be used for a good portion of the estimated 1 million valid signatures that would be needed. While Lowe would rather see a grassroots effort of volunteers collect all the signatures, he said that the reality of the large number needed and the state's size make that unlikely.
"Realistically, 1 million signatures is an awful lot," Lowe said. It would be more realistic if between 250,000 and 500,000 signatures were collected by volunteers, with the rest coming from paid gatherers, he said.
Kors said that EQCA is looking at that question. "I think that's something people need to discuss," he said, adding that a combination of volunteers and paid gatherers would be ideal.