W hen the Vermont Supreme Court ruled December 20 that denying the statutory benefits and protections of marriage to same-sex couples was discriminatory, conservatives began frothing at the mouth. "The End of Marriage," screamed the cover of The Weekly Standard, while the Christian right's GOP presidential candidate, Gary Bauer, proclaimed the court's decision "worse than terrorism." But the religious ultras are waging their cultural war most fiercely right now in California, where voters will be asked to approve the gay-bashing Knight Initiative when they cast their presidential primary ballots on March 7.
The fourteen-word initiative--"Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California," it says--was named after its principal sponsor, extremist GOP State Senator Pete Knight (it has been denounced by Knight's openly gay son, a Gulf War combat veteran). If the initiative is approved, it will be thanks to a lavishly funded campaign spearheaded by the Mormon Church, which counts 740,000 adherents in California, including four Republican members of Congress. Two years ago, the Mormons poured $1.1 million into the successful passage of anti-gay-marriage initiatives in Hawaii and Alaska. This year, in the Big Enchilada, they are expected to cough up three or four times that amount. As a result, separation of church and state has been at the forefront of the debate. Since the Mormons used church letterhead to raise funds and to provide instructions on raising money locally--and because such instructions, when signed by church elders, have the force of "divine commands" in the Mormon faith--the San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently passed unanimously a resolution calling on the IRS to investigate whether to revoke the church's 501(c)(3) tax exemption, which carries with it a ban on "substantial" political or lobbying activity.
Joining the Mormons in supporting the Knight Initiative is the Catholic Church--eight of the state's twelve dioceses and their bishops have already given more than $340,000 to the antigay campaign. Another funder: Howard Ahmanson, a trust-fund multimillionaire who has given $310,000 to the initiative. Ahmanson is a major backer of the Chalcedon Institute, which believes in the death penalty for adultery, promiscuity by unwed women, homosexuality and other "sins." As of their January 10 filings, the Knight forces reported raising $4.4 million. By contrast the No on Knight campaign has collected only $2.2 million.
The Knight Initiative would have an insidious impact far beyond prohibiting same-sex marriage. Similar laws passed in Florida, Illinois, Virginia and Washington have been used by religious extremists and hard-right legal groups to invalidate domestic-partnership ordinances (with their attendant economic benefits) adopted by local governments in those states. The University of Pittsburgh is arguing that Pennsylvania's anti-gay-marriage law invalidates dependent healthcare benefits for the school's heterosexual as well as gay employees. And in Idaho and North Carolina, such laws have been used by courts to try to nullify gay adoptions and visitation rights by gay and lesbian couples.
Passage of Knight is far from a given, as the latest polls indicate: In California's respected Field poll, support for the measure dropped from 57 percent last August to 50 percent in October. And internal polling by Decision Research for the No on Knight campaign shows that opposition to the initiative jumps to 47 percent once voters have heard comprehensive arguments on both sides of the issue. GOP Congressman Tom Campbell and the GOP Mayor of conservative San Diego, Susan Golding, both came out against Knight (centrist Democratic Governor Gray Davis has so far ducked the issue).
"The pro-Knight campaign is hampered by the fact that they have no moderate spokesperson," says No on Knight campaign manager Mike Marshall. "By contrast, we have the Speaker of the Assembly, the District Attorney of Los Angeles County and the Episcopal Bishop of California. So far they've been running a stealth campaign: Knight himself has been kept under wraps, they have no press conferences, won't accept debates." But, says Marshall, "the Mormons have been going door to door every weekend for three months--it's a huge effort, given the number of people we know who've been approached by them."
The No campaign field operation has ten organizers and offices in San Diego, Orange County, San Jose, Oakland and Sacramento, as well as dual headquarters in Los Angeles and San Francisco; it's directed by Leslie Curtis, an African-American woman from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Marshall himself is a veteran Democratic operative who ran the party's coordinated campaign in California in 1996. They've also got more volunteers than they can count. Starting with 5,000 names collected at last year's Gay Pride celebrations, the No campaign has recruited thousands more through phone banks provided by union locals of the SEIU, the Carpenters Union, Hotel and Restaurant Employees, the Civil Service Employees Association, the California Teachers Association and the California Conference of Machinists, even before the state AFL-CIO announced its opposition to the initiative on January 9. "This is ours to lose," says Marshall. "If we had $10 million for an ad campaign, we'd be able to tell a story of messages. It costs $1.2 million a week for a decent TV buy here; we have in hand enough for one week and think we'll be able to buy at least one more before we're done. If they win, it'll be because we didn't have enough money." Pro-Knight TV ads are already running.
The results in California will be closely watched by Vermont legislators, who have been ordered by the court decision to end the discrimination inherent in denying same-sexers the right to marry. Hearings on the issue began in January, but no vote is expected before April. Ed Flanagan, the openly gay elected state auditor (and the leading candidate for the Democratic US Senate nomination against Jim Jeffords), has been lobbying for marriage daily with state legislators in Burlington, who must decide between adopting an expanded version of domestic partnership or full marriage equality. "All previous domestic-partnership laws elsewhere have small subsets of marriage rights--here, this will be the full boat," says Flanagan, adding, "Legislators who pass our fundamental constitutional right to marry think they risk a possible political backlash in the fall, when they're up for re-election."
The Vermont court has said it will review the legislature's eventual action, to see if it fully meets the needs of same-sex couples who "seek nothing more, nor less, than legal protection and security for their avowed commitment to an intimate and lasting human relationship, [which] is simply a recognition of our common humanity." That's also what's at stake in California on March 7.
You can contribute to the No on Knight Campaign through its website (www.noonknight.org) or by sending a check to No on Knight, 505 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA 94105.