The state Supreme Court cleared the way recently for Arkansans to vote to carve in constitutional stone that people of the same sex may not marry.
A landslide win is predicted for proposed Amendment 3, pushed by fundamentalist Christian activists from the Family Council. One poll found 80 percent approval; another 64.8 percent.
But the dust won't settle on Election Day, if lawyers for the Arkansas ACLU and others are right. They predict the amendment is worded in such a way that it could cost unmarried partners — same-sex or not — benefits they currently enjoy, such as health insurance. Some lawyers have suggested the measure, by legalizing discrimination against unmarried couples, could adversely affect business and predict that lawsuits are sure to follow.
Intentionally or not, Justice Donald Corbin, writing for the 5-2 majority denying a challenge of the ballot title, summed up the future: "The ballot title clearly puts the voters on notice that the passage of this amendment is just the beginning, not the end, of the matter."
Petitioners who filed suit against the Arkansas Marriage Amendment Committee and its officers, Jerry Cox and Chris Stewart, charged the ballot title was misleading, and offered no explanation of the impact it might have on civil unions or other partnerships. Martha Adcock, lawyer for the Marriage Amendment Committee, responded that "If the voters think it's misleading, they can reject it."
Coverage of the gay marriage issue, resurrected in Congress this summer as the presidential race was swinging into full gear, has largely ignored why gay and lesbian couples wish to marry, focusing instead on conservative charges that "activist judges," like those on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, intend to cram blasphemy down Americans' throats.
One of the lowest moments in the gay marriage debate in Arkansas came when former state Rep. Marvin Parks of Greenbrier, the Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic Congressman Vic Snyder, said he believed the state should reinstitute laws against sodomy and enforce them. He likened enforcement of sodomy laws to that of drug laws, noting that police may enter a private home to search for the latter.
Arkansas state law already defines marriage as between a man and a woman. But state law is easier to change than the Constitution; hence the efforts in Arkansas — and 10 other states — to include amendments to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Susan May, one of the petitioners who filed the ballot challenge against the Arkansas Marriage Amendment Committee, said the desire to legalize same-sex marriage "is about stabilizing relationships," and that opposition to it "doesn't have a whit to do with marriage." Instead, she said, it is about the right wing "trying to energize their base and get them to the polls" to vote in the presidential race and congressional contests. "I am convinced it is part of their urgency about this that they know … the train has left the station," she said.
While the Marriage Amendment Committee is "about politics," May said, "standing up and supporting our gay and lesbian family members is what family values are all about."
A poll by Stephens Media found 80 percent of respondents in favor of the amendment, 17 percent against and 3 percent undecided or unresponsive. A more recent poll by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette came up with 64.8 percent for and 32.6 against, with 2.7 percent undecided.
Stacy Fletcher, a leader of the fight against the amendment, said she'll be happy even if only 15 percent to 20 percent of the people vote against it. The spokesperson for Arkansans for Human Rights said the numbers "would at least show us that in the short time we've been able to organize and get the word out that people are responding more positively."
The campaign against the proposal has been made at a "town hall" meeting and Libertyfest in Little Rock and in debates at sites such as Temple B'nai Israel, Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas at Monticello, the UA at Fayetteville and other campuses. Arkansans for Human Rights is also trying to raise money to buy billboard space urging a vote against Amendment 3.
Fletcher, who's been making the rounds to college campuses, still holds out hope that Amendment 3 will be beaten, "if Arkansans would really think about it and realize what this amendment is going to do to their Constitution. … Now we have states trying to restrict [rights]. I think the general public doesn't want that."
Though the opposition to Amendment 3 is less well-funded and powerful than the Marriage Amendment Committee, Fletcher and ACLU director Rita Sklar believe the issue has galvanized the gay and lesbian community in Arkansas.
"We've seen a tremendous upsurge in energy and determination and focus because of this issue," Sklar said. "It's hit people where they live."
Sklar would like to see a televised debate on the issue. AETN will air what it's describing as a "discussion" of the amendment at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26.