Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is 2014 the year for marriage equality in Ohio?

My spouse and I just filed our tax returns. Thanks to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, for the first time, we were able to file our federal return as a married couple. Because of Ohio’s retrograde restrictions on same sex marriage, we had to file separately in Ohio - along with a special form advising why. Without delving into too much personal detail, the process was far more costly and time consuming than in the past. But it was worth the time and money involved, knowing that our 2010 Vermont marriage is recognized by the Federal government. It’s also worth the effort we’re putting into getting our end-of-life documents in order – something opposite sex married couples don’t necessarily need to do.

One group, FreedomOhio, has been collecting signatures to get the Freedom to Marry amendment on the ballot this year. FreedomOhio has received a great deal of pushback from state and national LGBT organizations, including Equality Ohio, the Human Rights Campaign, and even the American Civil Liberties Union. These groups contend that there are problems with the ballot language and the timing, and prefer to wait until 2016 to push their own amendment.

 As is often the case, there are valid arguments on both sides.

The verbiage of the proposed amendment IS poor. The religious exemption could be used in ways that are harmful to the LGBT community, particularly given the growing prevalence in religiously affiliated hospitals here. On the other hand, HRC and the other big money gay groups have lawyers on hand who could have hammered out the correct language before the petition drive began. Why didn’t they? That’s open to speculation, and I have my own opinion - which I will expand upon below.

 The argument that one can get married in another state and have it recognized Federally, or that 2016 is only two more years, gives little comfort to those with a dying loved one or otherwise going through a life changing event.

 I believe if Ohio voters had a chance to vote on the issue this year, 2004’s Issue 1 would be repealed and same sex marriage legalized – so long as the ballot issue received adequate support from the larger LGBT organizations. This isn’t based on some Pollyanna notion that all of Ohio has suddenly become enlightened, but on hard data from numerous polls. Indeed, as Ohio is a microcosm of the country as a whole, there are parts of the state that are shockingly backwards, as well as more progressive areas. But the tide has shifted in Ohio as it has in much of the country.

The last few years have seen tremendous progress for the LGBT community: Hate Crimes Legislation, two historic Supreme Court rulings, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In all cases, it took the activists to get the ball rolling, often with HRC and the other high profile groups cautioning that it wasn’t time yet before finally being dragged into the party. When HRC’s Joe Solomonese was replaced by Chad Griffin, I had faint hopes that HRC would start to push more – but thus far that hasn’t been the case. They continue to take the “wait for the perfect time” approach, hunker down in their $16 million headquarters, and plan their next black-tie fundraiser. But there is seldom a perfect time in politics – and we oughtn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The optimal time could sneak up on us when we least expect it, even in Ohio. Like it or not, Ohio is a bellwether state. If SSM passes in Ohio (specifically by vote, rather than a judicial ruling), it would have a huge impact on the national marriage debate. The dominoes would start to fall very quickly. 

Essentially, there are two pieces of unfinished business remaining on the LGBT political agenda (as opposed to social issues, like bullying and teen suicide, where we still have a long way to go): nationwide marriage equality, and equal accommodations in employment, housing, credit, and the like. Once these political hurdles are jumped, there will be little reason for groups like HRC to exist. And I think they fear that even more than anti-gay discrimination.

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