Ohioans' certitude about gay marriage a decade ago has given way to ambiguity, potentially setting the stage next year for a second major battle on one of the most divisive social issues of our time.
Ohioans’ certitude about gay marriage a decade ago has given way to ambiguity, potentially setting the stage next year for a second major battle on one of the most divisive social issues of our time.
Some backers of a constitutional amendment to allow two consenting adults to marry regardless of gender want to go to the statewide ballot in the 2014 gubernatorial election, a roll of the dice on a question that 62 percent of voters answered in 2004. They amended the constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, effectively prohibiting same-sex marriages in Ohio.
Since then, polling shows a shift in Ohioans’ views, and there have been high-profile Republican defectors to the pro-gay-marriage side, including U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Cincinnati and former Ohio attorney general and state auditor Jim Petro — both of whom changed their positions after each had a child come out.
Although many analysts believe the trend lines point to a day when same-sex marriage will become legal in Ohio, some question not only whether voters are ready to make that change as soon as next year, but also whether going to the ballot in a non-presidential year is sound strategy.
“If you’re just trying to repeal that (2004) amendment, 2014 might not be the best year to do that, simply because there’s likely to be a good conservative turnout,” said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist recognized as a national expert on religion and politics.
Democrats, who polling shows are more apt to support same-sex marriage than Republicans, already go into 2014 at a disadvantage, if history is an accurate gauge. Typically, about 2 million fewer Ohio ballots are cast in gubernatorial elections than presidential elections, and the highest fall-off usually is among Democrats.
Also, the party controlling the presidency generally fares less well in non-presidential elections, and given Democratic President Barack Obama’s declining popularity and Republican Gov. John Kasich’s rising approval rating, 2014 seems to favor Republicans, Green acknowledged.
But he and others say viewpoints are shifting so rapidly on same-sex marriage that it is hard to stereotype voters based on their partisan affiliations and philosophical predilections.
“The bases get overplayed in this debate,” said Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio, a liberal advocacy group. “It really is a cultural issue and generational issue more than a partisan issue.”
An April 19 survey of Ohio voters by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute showed that 48 percent supported same-sex marriage and 44 percent opposed it, a turnabout from the 47 percent who opposed and 45 percent who supported in Quinnipiac’s Ohio poll just 16 months earlier. The April survey showed 67 percent of Democrats supported same-sex marriage, 69 percent of Republicans opposed it, and independents supported it 47-44.
Significantly, 68 percent of poll respondents ages 18 to 34 backed gay marriage.
“Every year, the polls tell us that the acceptance of same-gender marriage grows both in Ohio and across the country,” said Petro. “The likelihood of the repeal (of Ohio’s ban) grows each year."
Phil Burress, head of Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values, which led the 2004 campaign to ban same-sex marriage — it passed in all Ohio counties except Athens — said the “polls are wrong,” and there remains a fervent majority opposed to same-sex marriage, led by evangelical Christian voters.
“It’s not just evangelicals; Democrats voted for the marriage amendment as well in 2004,” Burress said, noting that the amendment fetched nearly 470,000 more votes in Ohio than GOP President George W. Bush did that year.
If a ballot amendment goes forth next year, Burress said, “The turnout on our side of the marriage issue will be huge. We’re calling and visiting 10,000 churches that are with us on marriage.”
Akron’s Green, however, said there is “a broader acceptance of homosexuality in the populace” since 2004, including among more moderate churchgoers such as Presbyterians and Episcopalians who often lean Republican.
“Given the recent trends on the marriage issue, maybe it will be more difficult for religious conservatives to develop the same kind of fervor and I don’t think they’ll replicate the kind of public support they had in 2004,” Green said. “That side might win, but it’s not going to be 62 percent. For one thing, public opinion has changed dramatically on that issue.”
Backers of same-sex marriage and gay rights have been effective at arguing for them as a matter of equity and fairness, Green said, because “we Americans love our rights.”
For that same reason, Petro said, he has been surprised that more Republicans don’t favor same-sex marriage.
“Republicans should be for freedom, they should be for equality, and they should be supportive of the notion of commitment,” he said.
Ian James, co-founder of FreedomOhio, the group seeking to repeal the 2004 gay-marriage ban, said the necessary 385,000 valid signatures of registered Ohio voters should be collected by next July to qualify for the 2014 general-election ballot, but the group also has the option of waiting until the 2016 presidential election if it deems the electoral climate more favorable.
Still, James believes Ohioans are ready to undo the ban and will support the amendment next year, in part because it doesn’t require churches and religious groups to perform or recognize same-sex marriages.
“When you give voters — Republicans, Democrats, independents — the ability to vote affirmatively for major equality, there’s a big push that goes across party lines,” James said.
Not all gay-rights advocates are convinced that 2014 is the right time for a ballot amendment. Elizabeth Holford, executive director of Equality Ohio, said a “complex political analysis” first must occur involving extensive polling, grassroots organizing and a comprehensive campaign plan.
“For me, it’s not really a question of 2014 or 2016; it’s a question of when do we know we can go forward with a strong chance of winning,” Holford said.