Columns » Max Brantley

Listen carefully

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A coalition of religious groups used primary election day to jumpstart the campaign to put discrimination against gays and lesbians in the Arkansas Constitution. Coalition petitioners were at many polls to get signatures to put an amendment on the ballot to prohibit same-sex marriage. A state employee told me about her experience at Dunbar Middle School. "Two people walked up to me. The first words out of one of their mouths was, 'Would you like to sign a petition for a chance to vote for or against gay marriage.' I'm for gay marriage, so I thought, maybe I should sign it. Then I realized they were trying to hoodwink me." Indeed. The ballot measure offers no opportunity to vote for same-sex marriage. It offers only the opportunity to prohibit it. Arkansas law already prohibits same-sex marriage. The constitutional redundancy is intended to derail anyone who thinks the Constitution's promise of equal rights might cast some legal doubt on the statute. The amendment does more than ban same-sex marriage. It also prohibits giving the rights of marriage to any but married couples. That prohibition has implications for a range of issues - inheritance, health insurance, custody, property division - that can't yet be fully foreseen. It could harm more than gays by limiting the state's ability to adapt to the changing nature of families and domestic partnerships. Such big technicalities don't matter to those who believe their Bible condemns homosexuality. They want the state to punish those who practice otherwise. Bible or no Bible, at least a few of them are apparently willing to lie to get the job done. It is not only a lie to say this amendment is a vote for or against gay marriage. It might also be a crime. State law makes it a Class A misdemeanor - punishable by up to a year in jail - to knowingly and falsely misrepresent the effect of a ballot measure to get someone to sign a petition. A friend of the state employee was accosted by petitioners in North Little Rock. There, the pitch was that the amendment would "remove activist judges." The amendment would remove no judges. A state constitutional amendment would provide gay-bashers some momentary pleasure. But it won't change gay people's wiring. Nor will it change the growing tolerance of homosexuality, particularly among future old people. It also ignores federal case law, which says you can't target a group of people for discrimination on account of their group. (At least that was the law until George W. Bush started appointing federal judges.) In time, the state's effort to make second-class citizens of people who want only to establish loving families will go in history's garbage can. There, it will join the old racial segregation laws. Zealots waving Bibles helped pass those laws, too. In the meanwhile, if you're asked to sign one of these petitions, listen carefully. If you're told a lie, ask for the petitioner's name and address, just as he asked for yours. Then cheerfully inform him that, while he'll not be getting your name, the prosecutor will be getting his. And by all means assure him that it's the sin you hate, not the sinner.

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