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Ohio shaping up to become battleground in gay marriage debate

Ohio is shaping up to become a possible battleground — this time over gay marriage — after Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage last week and voters here could face the issue as early as November.

But, Ohio is in a much different position than Minnesota and other states that have legalized gay marriage. Ohio's definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman is enshrined in the state constitution through a citizen-driven constitutional amendment and can only be changed by another amendment.

Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment in 2004.

Supporters of a "Freedom to Marry" amendment have been collecting signatures for more than a year, but haven't decided whether they'll attempt to make the ballot in November or wait until 2014.

Ian James, co-founder of FreedomOhio, said his group will have collected more than the required 386,000 signatures by July 3 to place the amendment on the November 2013 ballot. He said the group's executive board is still gauging whether they have the resources to mount a statewide campaign this year.

James said legalization in three states this month indicates the effort is gaining speed.

"It's another affirmation that the tide has turned, the time is right," James said.

Another major development is expected in the gay-marriage debate this summer as the U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule on two cases next month.

Public opinion

A Gallup poll released last week shows national support for gay marriage at 53 percent — the fourth consecutive survey from the firm showing 50 percent or above approval. The level of support is double that of Gallup's first survey in 1996.

A March Saperstein Poll for The Columbus Dispatch showed that 54 percent of Ohioans back the Freedom to Marry amendment, but other surveys show as few as 41 percent of Ohioans favor same-sex marriage.

Former Dayton-area state representative Seth Morgan said he's not convinced by public opinion polls. Morgan serves on the board for Citizens for Community Values, which backed the 2004 marriage amendment and is lining up against Freedom to Marry.

"Whether it's this November or five Novembers from now, we will be there to defend the bedrock of the family and society," Morgan said.

Morgan said the same-sex marriage push is a veiled effort to make people accept "a special class of individuals for a lifestyle choice."

"I don't think anybody wants to be viewed as discriminatory or out of touch but if you ask most Ohioans, ‘What's your opinion on marriage?' they're going to tell you it's between a man and a woman," Morgan said.

In 2011, Minnesota's Republican-controlled legislature approved putting gay marriage to a vote. Minnesotans rejected a constitutional amendment requiring marriage to be between one man and one woman, as it is in Ohio's constitution, 53 to 47 percent.

Minnesota was the first state to reject a gay marriage ban at the ballot after more than 30 states passed one. The state became the first in the Midwest to approve gay marriage by a legislative vote after Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill last week.

Minnesotans United for All Families, the group working against the same-sex ban in 2011, credited its success to grassroots organizing and numerous conversations between advocates and their friends, families and lawmakers.

James said FreedomOhio is building the same momentum with the help of thousands of volunteers having hundreds of thousands of conversations across the state.

Dan Birdsong, a University of Dayton political science professor, said a ballot issue for same-sex marriage may be premature without solid, overwhelming support for it in Ohio and it could have a better chance in a few years. Support for legalizing gay marriage has grown in every age category, Birdsong noted, but is still much lower among older Ohioans than 18-29 year olds, of which 70 percent supported it in the Gallup poll.

"People are not only changing their minds but older generations who tend to be more predisposed to opposing gay marriage are leaving," Birdsong said.

What Ohioans could vote on

The proposed Freedom to Marry amendment reads, "marriage shall be a union of two consenting adults not nearer of kin than second cousins, and not having a husband or wife living, and no religious institution shall be required to perform or recognize a marriage."

James said the last part of the amendment — religious freedom — addresses a major concern among people who hold traditional marriage views.

Rob Walgate, president of the American Policy Roundtable, said that language might not hold if a decision is made on the national level. The Roundtable, a nonprofit encouraging liberty from a Judeo-Christian view, supports traditional marriage.

"If they're having these discussions at the Supreme Court, is the state constitution going to trump what's going to be said there?" Walgate said.

Walgate also questioned FreedomOhio's motives around timing and whether the initiative is truly meant to change marriage or to boost turnout and help statewide candidates at the top of the ticket. In 2014, Gov. John Kasich and other Republican state office holders that were elected in 2010 will be up for re-election.

The Ohio Democratic Party executive committee has endorsed same-sex marriage but not the Freedom to Marry amendment, which is why some advocates were surprised to receive party emails fundraising on the issue. One email asked potential donors to "help ODP pass a referendum recognizing equality."

Party spokesman Jerid Kurtz said the state party's executive committee meets next at the end of June, but it's unknown whether they'll vote then to support the specific amendment.

Officials from the National Freedom to Marry organization said last year they did not support the proposed constitutional amendment. Ohio may be a battleground state for presidential elections, but it's not a top contender for same-sex marriage movements. The organization has financially backed efforts in more liberal states including Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Equality Ohio, which formed in response to the 2004 marriage amendment, also held back. Then-Director Ed Mullen said last year that 2013 would be too soon for a ballot issue. But that was before President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, publicly issued their support.

James said his group and Equality Ohio are working together now and eventually will agree on the issue. Earlier this month, the two groups hosted a lobby day at the Ohio Statehouse and joined forces to push a renewed effort to amend Ohio's anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation.

"We're courting each other, we're looking for an engagement and soon we'll say ‘I do,'" James said.

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