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California gay-marriage groups disagree on date for ballot

Equality California said Wednesday it is targeting the 2012 election. But other groups want to do it next year. The rift could hurt their campaign.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / August 12, 2009

Gay couple Ethan Collings (l.), 32, and his spouse Stephen Abate, 36, hug as they celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary in West Hollywood, California, in this June 16 file photo. The biggest California gay rights advocacy group said Wednesday that it needed three years to build a coalition to repeal a ban on same-sex marriage in the state.

Lucy Nicholson/ Reuters/ File

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San Francisco

2010 or 2012? That question appears to be driving a wedge between California’s leading gay-marriage proponents.

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Some groups want to ask voters to reconsider the state’s ban on same-sex marriage as soon as next year; others say that’s far too soon to return to the ballot box.

On Wednesday, one of the state’s largest gay-rights groups, Equality California, went public with its conclusion, saying it was targeting 2012. The debate has been percolating in the gay and lesbian community since March, when the state's Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8. The proposition limits the definition of marriage to a man and a woman and was passed by 52 percent of California voters in November.

“We really think that we have a shot in the next three years. But we have one shot, we don't have two shots. We're not waiting at all. We're going hard. But we think the campaign is a three-year campaign,” Marc Solomon, Equality California's marriage director, told reporters.

Other groups, however, are still working to bring the question to voters in a ballot initiative next year.

This split among the gay and lesbian groups working to overturn Prop. 8 could weaken that community’s push to legalize same-sex marriage here, some gay-rights groups fear. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which actively campaigned against Prop. 8, both 2010 and 2012 could be too soon.

“It’s a little bit frustrating that there is so much community energy devoted to this debate [about the date]. What we should really be doing is focusing on changing people’s minds on this issue,” says Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

The Prop. 8 campaign last year showed that advocacy groups certainly made mistakes.

Chaz Lowe, director of Yes! on Equality, says that many groups originally thought that the opposition for Prop. 8 was much higher than it turned out to be.

Polls show that California voters are still split on the issue, but there are opportunities, Mr. Lowe says. When the question about legal gay marriage includes a provision that churches will not be forced perform same-sex marriages, support increases by about 5 percent. With that provision, he says, 52 percent of voters would support overturning Prop. 8.

According to a March poll by the nonpartisan Field Institute, 49 percent of voters in California said they approved of same-sex marriage while 44 percent disapproved and 7 percent said they didn’t have an opinion.

“Regardless of whether we go in 2010 or 2012, we will definitely have our work cut out for us,” says Lowe.

Equality California says waiting until 2012 will not only give gay-rights groups more time to raise money and possibly change opinions on the matter, it will also put the question on the ballot during a presidential vote, which will bring more voters to the polls.

“Younger, more supportive voters are much more likely to vote during the presidential election in 2012.... And the extra three years will add young people who are now 15, 16, and 17 to the voter rolls. All together, analysis demonstrates that we go in with 4 percent more support in 2012 than 2010 on these factors alone,” the group said on its blog.

On his blog, Rick Jacobs of Courage Campaign, another gay-rights group in California, said he recognizes there are political risks to taking the gay-marriage question to voters in 2010.

“Frankly, too much attention has been placed on the political consequences of running an election in 2010 or 2012. The bottom line is that we must begin now to convince the people of California that civil marriage rights should be made available to all people, period. None of us should have to wait one more day to achieve equality at any level,” he writes.