New goal is 155,000 signatures in 155 days
Feb 16, 2006
By JONI B. HANNIGAN

TALLAHASSEE (FBW)—Leaders of a citizen initiative to amend Florida’s Constitution to define marriage as the institution between one man and one woman remained hopeful Feb. 8 after presenting oral arguments defending the ballot language to the Florida Supreme Court.

Despite not gaining enough signatures to put the amendment before voters in 2006, Mat Staver, lead counsel for Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, represented the official sponsor of the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment, Florida4Marriage.org, which gathered 456,7363 ballots by Feb. 1.

If the justices approve the ballot summary language and the sponsors collect another 155,000 signatures, the amendment will now go before voters in 2008.

Bill Bunkley (l), legislative consultant to the Florida Baptist Convention, stands with Bill Stephens, Mat Staver, and John Stemberger outside the Florida Supreme Court building Feb 8. Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
Bill Bunkley, legislative consultant for the Florida Baptist Convention who has served on the steering committee for Florida4Marriage.org, was one of a number of speakers at a rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Tallahassee following the oral arguments at the State’s high court.

Citing Florida Baptists’ involvement with hurricane relief efforts late last year, Bunkley said there was too little time to collect the required number of signatures once the petition drive was underway. Comparing the effort to others where millions were spent in paying professionals to gather signatures, Bunkley said even a hastily arranged “Pony Express” delivery system just couldn’t make the deadline for delivery.

“I am very encouraged by what I heard inside the Supreme Court, however,” Bunkley told Florida Baptist Witness after the rally. “I am reasonably optimistic that they will uphold the proposed marriage amendment and let the people decide the issue.”

John Stemberger, state chairman of the Florida4Marriage.org, called for the launch of “155 in 155,” a movement calling for 155,000 petitions to be signed in 155 days, which began Feb. 8 and ends July 12, 2006.

“If there was ever a time for direct democracy, this was it,” Stemberger said at the rally.

At the Supreme Court hearing, Staver told the justices the “trigger” for allowing the hearing to go forward was that a 10 percent threshold of petitions had been received months earlier, which meant the court could review the summary without waiting for the entire 611,009 petitions to be certified. There had been concern earlier the justices would not go forward with the hearing since it appeared the deadline to place the amendment on the 2006 ballot had passed without enough signatures.

Additionally, he said the initiative was designed to preserve the status quo of what a marriage looks like in Florida.

“While most initiatives create something new, this amendment protects something old,” Staver said. “It does not change existing law.”

Answering justice’s questions about what aspects of the summary the court needed to address at the hearing, Staver told the court the ballot summary met the requirement that the amendment address a single subject, and be fair and not misleading.

Calling marriage a “deeply religious institution” in many ways, Chief Justice Barbara Pariente said the usual question the state asks of this union relates to benefits or obligations in a relationship, especially if there are children. She asked Staver if there were already laws defining marriage and he said, “no,” not in the way it is historically defined. “We don’t have that very neat section,” Staver said.

Staver told justices there were about a thousand references to marriage which exist in Florida statutes and that the amendment would not address other unions, such as civil unions, but would mean Florida would recognize legally only those “marriages” from other places that are “the substantial equivalent of a marriage” in Florida—that being defined in the state constitution as being the union of one man and one woman. The Amendment would also not prohibit local or state government from giving unmarried couples a “bundle” of rights.

Marlene Vargas, a member of First Baptist Church in Oviedo, dressed in pink in support of an amendment affirming traditional marriage. Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
Clarifying the amendment’s relationship to the 1994 Florida Defense of Marriage Act, Staver said “it is really a restatement of that legislation and puts it from the statutory level into the constitutional level.” The action is needed, Staver said, because of states like Massachusetts, which used their state constitution to strike down historic marriage laws. Nineteen other states have thus far amended their state constitutions, joining 39 others which have amended their statutes regarding marriage.

Reminding justices that Floridians didn’t think about “same-sex marriage” in the 1800’s, Staver said the era in which we live has changed with a lot of “legislative tactics moving forward” to change the basic definition of marriage.

“This is an amendment that is designed to do more than trademark eight letters of a word—marriage; it is designed to protect the substance of marriage so that marriage is marriage as we have always known and commonly understood since the 1800’s and even before that,” Staver continued.

Presenting an opposing argument, Leslie Cooper spoke on behalf of six homosexual couples, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the AFL-CIO, Equality Florida and the American Civil Liberties Union. Cooper said the summary language combines two separate subjects because it limits marriage to the union of one man and one woman and restricts ways governments can provide “protections” for relationships.

Cooper said the amendment “enshrines both parts of the proposed amendment into the Constitution,” and removes the freedom of legislators to define marriage.

Pariente said it appeared debate over the amendment itself was not the issue.

“I don’t see how that goes into what we are supposed to do, which is really to look and say, ‘Is this a cataclysmic change in government that, really, can’t be done by a single issue,’” Pariente offered.

Because people may feel differently about a single issue, Pariente said “… those people will have to make a decision whether to vote for this or not vote for this.

“I don’t see how that affects whether it is a valid constitutional amendment,” Pariente continued. “Maybe no one is exactly sure what marriage means, not only the legal union, but the protections and responsibilities that go with it.”

Staver, in his rebuttal, restated his assertion that the amendment was “very straightforward and very clear,” also pointing out the amendment summary was stated in one sentence.

Pariente thanked both Staver and Cooper for the “professional” way in which they presented their arguments.

“I know this is an emotional issue for a lot of people, and I hope that those watching this oral argument can see that we have got to stick to the legal issues and not the politics of it,” Pariente said.

 

At the rally afterwards, several dozen supporters of the amendment wore pink and blue to show their support of the amendment. The idea was birthed by Marlene Vargas, a member of First Baptist Church in Oviedo, who dressed in various shades of pink and carried a pink and blue sign and bouquet of flowers.

Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), told adults and children they have a “charge to keep” and “a set of responsibilities” related to the getting enough petition signatures for the amendment to appear on the 2008 ballot.

“As you know, this country wasn’t built in a day,” said Baxley, who is a member of First Baptist Church in Ocala. “We are not finished, we’ve only just begun.”

Referring to the citizens’ initiative which allows Floridians to have a hand in the constitutional process, Baxley said this is an issue that “cannot be compromised” in a “civilization built of families.”

For more information, go to www.Florida4Marriage.org. To download petitions, go to www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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