LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The argument by Arkansas‘ top economic development official and advocates that legalizing gay marriage would lure business to the state isn’t likely to sway Republicans united in their opposition to same-sex unions. But it could nudge top Democrats who appear just as opposed to the idea.
Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Grant Tennille’s support for gay marriage and his argument that treating same-sex couples equally under the law would help the state attract more businesses marks a new front in an uphill political battle. It’s a shift from a social issue to a pocketbook issue.
“We have an opportunity here before us to move first, to be a leader in this country and maybe more importantly in the South, to affirmatively say that all of our citizens will be treated equally under the law,” Tennille said at a state Capitol news conference organized by the Human Rights Campaign. “I know that the impact of that statement and that decision will mean economic growth in the state of Arkansas. I have no doubt.”
Tennille announced his support after noting that the 59th anniversary had just passed of the death of Alan Turing, the computer pioneer who helped win World War II. After the war, Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality, stripped of his security clearance and forcibly treated with female hormones. Turing killed himself in 1954 at age 41 by eating an apple laced with cyanide.
“The economies in the world that are the most vibrant, the economies that grow the fastest, the economies that provide prosperity for all people are the economies that are most free,” Tennille said.
His comments mark a new tack in a fight against the constitutional amendment voters approved in 2004 defining marriage as between a man and a woman. A pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings supporting gay marriage has spurred opponents of the amendment to fight the ban.
A group of 11 gay couples have asked a Pulaski County judge to overturn the constitutional amendment, and a separate challenge in federal court could be filed soon. Two groups are seeking to put gay marriage before voters, with one group aiming to place a repeal of the 2004 amendment on next year’s ballot and another group pushing for a gay marriage legalization measure in 2016.
Any legal challenge faces a long and uncertain future, and the political path seems just as muddled. With 75 percent of voters supporting the marriage ban in 2004, any campaign to repeal the amendment faces tall odds at the ballot box.
The effort to recast the debate in economic terms, however, may help in drawing more allies to the fight. Though Democrats nationally have announced their support for same-sex couples, party leaders in Arkansas aren’t as eager to follow.
Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who remains popular in a state that has shifted rightward in the past two elections, said he didn’t mind Tennille speaking out on the issue but still opposes legalizing same-sex marriage.
“He certainly has a right to his opinion,” Beebe said. “What I’ve said all along is we’ve got a constitutional amendment and if you’re asking me personally, I still personally believe marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Beebe’s position reflects a party that’s worried about moving too far ahead on the issue. Republicans have already signaled they’re ready to pounce on any Democrats who embrace Tennille’s argument in favor of gay marriage.
So far, none of the Democratic candidates for the state’s top offices indicate they’re ready to support same-sex unions. Sen. Mark Pryor, who faces a tough re-election bid next year, has already said he won’t join other Democratic figures in Washington backing gay marriage.
But Beebe also represents some hope for gay marriage supporters that Democrats in the state will eventually shift on the issue. Even though Tennille said he didn’t expect to change Beebe’s mind on gay marriage, he noted that the governor shifted on allowing same-sex couples to foster and adopt children.
Shifts like that are what encourage advocates like Chad Griffin, the Arkansas native who now heads the Human Rights Campaign. Griffin said he’s not ready to give up on any elected officials in the state — Democrat or Republican — but acknowledges that his group still has a ways to go to change minds on the issue.
“I’m confident at the end of the day, they’ll all evolve,” Griffin said. “The question is how soon.”
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