Initiative seeks to legalize gay marriage in Arizona

2013-06-18T00:00:00Z 2013-06-18T09:43:03Z Initiative seeks to legalize gay marriage in ArizonaHoward Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star
June 18, 2013 12:00 am  • 

PHOENIX - Arizonans may get another chance to decide whether gays should be able to marry.

Warren Meyer, a Phoenix businessman, and Erin Simpson, a retired Tucson attorney, filed paperwork Monday morning seeking to put an issue on the 2014 ballot constitutionally defining marriage in Arizona as between any "two persons." That would overturn the 2008 voter-approved amendment saying marriage is limited to "one man and one woman."

In a bid to blunt possible religious opposition, the same measure says no religious organization can be required to officiate or solemnize any particular marriage "in violation of its constitutional right to free exercise of religion."

Backers need 259,213 valid signatures by July 3, 2014, to qualify for the general election ballot that year. Simpson said she hopes to collect close to 400,000.

Meyer said he thinks attitudes have changed since 2008, when the ban on same-sex marriage was approved by a 56-44 margin.

"You see that in the polling data," he said. And Meyer said Arizonans now have the benefit of seeing the experiences of 12 other states and the District of Columbia, which have allowed gays to wed.

"And we see how that's working out for them," Meyer said.

"I think it's working well. And I think that gives people increased confidence to bring equal marriage to Arizona."

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, which led the successful 2008 campaign, said she's not impressed with the polling numbers.

"The vote that counts is the vote at the ballot box," she said.

"All the talk about whether attitudes have changed about marriage definition or same-sex marriage is just that - it's talk. We will be prepared to work with our allies to preserve Arizona's constitutional amendment defining marriage as only the union of one man and one woman."

Simpson, however, said the organization, named Equal Marriage Arizona, is hoping to build a broad-based coalition and not rely solely on gay-rights groups for backing. She said she is a Republican and Meyer is a Libertarian. Simpson said they will be announcing a Democrat to join Meyer as co-chair of the effort.

"We're reaching out to everyone," Simpson said. "We think this is an issue that crosses ideologies and orientation."

"The one challenge we have is, obviously, it's expensive," Meyer said, estimating it will take "millions" to both pay circulators to get the issue on the ballot and then run the public relations campaign. Meyer said his group has some financial commitments, but refused to disclose them, saying their names will become public when the required disclosure forms are filed.

The timing of the initiative drive is deliberate.

Meyer pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to issue a ruling on the legality of California's Proposition 8, which repealed that state's laws allowing gays to wed.

He thinks the court, rather than issuing a broad decision saying that gays nationwide have a right to wed, will come down with a narrower ruling saying that issue is to be left to each state.

Meyer said that's why Arizona needs to repeal the 2008 constitutional amendment.

Simpson said she and Meyer made a conscious decision to pursue allowing gays to wed rather than the less sweeping - and potentially more politically acceptable - option of permitting civil unions without conferring the label of "married" on those involved.

"The only way to have equality is to have the same kind of legally recognized rights, responsibilities, obligations," Simpson said. "What we're finding is that civil unions aren't exactly the same thing."

Herrod said she does not see the fact that gay marriage has been approved elsewhere as helping proponents here.

"As we've seen in other states, when marriage is redefined, other rights are threatened, including religious-liberty rights," she said. And Herrod said what is billed as an opt-out allowing religious groups to refuse to solemnize or officiate at such ceremonies may be insufficient to protect religious freedoms.

Meyer said part of the reason he is hopeful is Arizonans narrowly defeated the first ballot measure in 2006 to ban same-sex weddings.

But that initiative actually was broader than the question of marriage. It also would have barred the state from recognizing civil unions or anything that would have given the same privileges as marriage to same-sex couples. That resulted in the scaled-back 2008 measure dealing solely with marriage.

Gov. Jan Brewer, who did not take an official position on the 2008 measure when she was secretary of state, said Monday she does not know whether voter attitudes have changed since then.

"I don't have a pulse on that issue whatsoever," she said.

But Brewer does have a record of sorts: Shortly after becoming governor, she pushed through legislation to deny health insurance and other benefits to the partners of gay state and university employees. That overturned a personnel rule change advanced by Janet Napolitano, her predecessor.

A federal appeals court ruled the law illegal. The case remains on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the justices having put the issue on the back burner while they decide both the California gay-marriage question and the legality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits and tax treatment to gay couples who are legally married in states that allow it.

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