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California win emboldens coalition of religious groups

Saturday, November 8, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Energized by a comeback win, conservative activists want to apply the same formula they used to outlaw same-sex marriage in California to prevent other states from recognizing gay unions and president-elect Barack Obama from expanding the rights of gays and lesbians.

Leaders of the successful Proposition 8 campaign say an unusual coalition of evangelical Christians, Mormons and Roman Catholics built a majority at the polls Tuesday by harnessing the organizational muscle of churches to a mainstream message about what schoolchildren might be taught about gay relationships if the ban failed.

Same-sex marriage bans also won in Arizona and Florida. But in putting together the California victory, the coalition overcame opposition from the state's political establishment and assumptions about how voters in the famously tolerant state would respond to taking away the rights the state's highest court granted this spring.

"Everyone told me it could not be done, people do not care about this enough, you will be overwhelmed and you will lose," said Maggie Gallagher, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, a New Jersey group that provided seed money early this year to qualify the measure for the ballot.

"This is an issue people care about when they understand what is at stake and we mount a vigorous and visible defense of marriage," Gallagher said.

Same-sex couples are expected to start marrying next week in Connecticut, the third state after Massachusetts and California where courts have held it was unconstitutional to bar same-sex couples from marrying.

Unlike California, Connecticut does not have an initiative process that would allow voters to override the judicial decision there. So Gallagher said anti-gay-marriage groups plan to focus next on New Jersey and New York, where the state legislatures are being lobbied to pass laws legalizing same-sex marriage.

The plan is to mobilize the same religious factions that joined forces in California to deter lawmakers from "taking on this divisive social issue while we are in the middle of a huge financial crisis," Gallagher said.

Campaign operatives attribute their success to the churches, which served as voter registration centers, phone banks and volunteer recruitment hubs.

Religious institutions also gave Proposition 8's sponsors an avenue to a range of ethnic voters, including many Democrats, said Mat Staver, who heads the Florida-based Christian legal group Liberty Counsel.

Catholic and evangelical Hispanics and African-American Baptists stood alongside conservative white evangelicals in arguing for traditional marriage. Exit polls showed 70 percent of blacks supported the ban, a far higher percentage than any other race.

Gay-right activists attribute their loss in California in large part to overconfidence among Proposition 8 opponents. Although polls showed the measure far behind in mid-September, the Yes-on-8 campaign was raising far more money than its opponents.

"There was a lot of complacency. People didn't believe it could have been this close, so we had to scramble to raise money." said Yvette Martinez, political director for Equality for All, the coalition of gay, civil rights and liberal religious groups formed to fight the initiative.

Martinez also blamed a Yes-on-8 TV ad featuring a little girl telling her mother she had learned in school that she could grow up to marry a princess. Spanish-language ads were released on the same theme.

Proposition 8 says nothing about education, but gay-marriage opponents say allowing same-sex weddings would have affected what California public-school students are taught. Gay-rights groups disputed that, noting that the schools already are required to teach tolerance of gays and lesbians.

"Those lies penetrated," said Martinez. "People believed that we were going to force gay marriage into the classroom, and there is no getting around people wanting to protect their children and to make decisions for their own family."

Perhaps the most crucial faith-based ingredient of the California campaign was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon church was invited into the coalition by San Francisco's Roman Catholic Archbishop George Neiderauer, who previously spent 11 years as bishop of the Catholic diocese of Utah.

Mormons make up less than 2 percent of the California population with a religious preference, but it is widely believed that church members around the country were responsible for a major share of the more than $36 million raised to pass the gay marriage ban.

Gay-marriage opponents say the bipartisan, multiracial alliance that helped Proposition 8 pass could be instrumental in fighting any steps Obama takes as president to expand the rights of gays and lesbians.

"Those can be activated and pressure can be put on senators and congressional leaders who are not as left-leaning as Barack Obama to not follow his agenda," Staver said.

During his campaign for the White House, Obama pledged to work for repeal of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from affording Social Security and other benefits to same-sex couples. He also vowed to reverse the Defense Department policy that prevents openly gay people from serving in the military.

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said she isn't worried the Proposition 8 campaign has produced a new political juggernaut, noting that the religious denominations that worked together in California have deep theological and spiritual differences.

Kendell, who was raised Mormon, said she was astonished to see black pastors working alongside members of a religion that did not allow blacks to serve as priests until she was in high school.

"Any time a coalition is formed for the expediency of one issue, it is very hard to hold it together," Kendell said.


Associated Press Writer Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City contributed to this story.


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