Idaho voters to consider gay marriage ban

/ Source: The Associated Press

Idaho residents will decide next month whether to ban gay marriage and other nontraditional domestic unions. Similar bans have passed in 20 states this year, and eight states - including Idaho - will vote in November.

Proponents of the ban say it's needed to prevent so-called advocate judges from changing Idaho's marriage laws and to protect children. Opponents say the proposal is redundant, unnecessary and little more than a form of discrimination against those couples that don't fit within Idaho's norm.

The ban - which brewed for at least three years among Idaho's lawmakers before making it to the ballot this November - is expected to pass, despite the galvanized efforts of the measure's opponents.

Call to action
"The difficulty of the task does not relieve us from the obligation to try," said Amy Herzfeld, the executive director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center. "We see this as a call to action for human-rights advocates."

Idaho Sen. Gerry Sweet, R-Meridian, said it's more a matter of strengthening the state's laws.

"This is simply defending what marriage is and what it has been since the beginning of our state," said Sweet. "It simply protects that which has been historical and cultural from the beginning of Idaho."

The effort in Idaho and elsewhere to ban same-sex marriage in state constitutions as well as in local laws was enlivened after Massachusetts became the first state in the country to legalize gay marriage in 2004.

Highest possible protection
"In one fell swoop unelected judges redefined marriage in Massachusetts," Sweet said. "Who will determine the law on marriage? The Legislature or some unelected judge who tries to make social policy from his bench? We're going to enshrine it in our constitution to make sure it has the highest possible protection."

Indeed, the struggle for power between state lawmakers and the courts may be what is truly behind the gay marriage debate across the nation, said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

"Clearly there has been a rising tide of debate about gay rights and the position of gays and lesbians in American society over the last 15 years. But what brought this matter to a head was the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Courts," Galston said. "It's inevitable that if a court acts in a way that creates a popular reaction, there will probably be a legislative response."

'Domestic legal unions'
It's not so much the marriage debate that has many opposing the amendment. Instead, it's that Idaho's amendment also bans "domestic legal unions" between anyone but a man and woman.

"I've been going around and talking to people, and once they hear what the amendment really entails they consistently say, 'I'm kind of traditional but this really seems like it goes too far and that doesn't seem fair to me,'" said Andrew Yoder, the campaign manager for Idaho Votes No, a group opposing the amendment. "People in Idaho are generally fair-minded and we can all get together and agree when something goes too far."

Sweet maintains that the amendment won't prevent same-sex couples from having access to insurance benefits, medical end-of-life decisions and other rights - as long as they do the legal homework first.

"A couple that's living together can go out and legally define who gets my insurance benefits, my estate if I pass away - your sexual orientation has nothing to do with that," Sweet said.

But setting up those legal documents takes the help of an attorney and money - something that not every couple has access to, said Jack Van Valkenburgh with the Idaho ACLU.

"Who's going to pay the attorney's fees for the literally hundreds of rights that one can only get by contracting with an attorney? And what do you do about benefits that are by federal law only available to married couples?"

Social security benefits to surviving spouses and other federal programs are limited to married couples, Van Valkenburgh said.