COLUMBUS, Ohio — As it works to educate voters on the need for marriage equality, a coalition of state and national advocacy groups says it opposes another organization’s effort to win Ohioans marriage equality at the ballot box this fall.
Michael Premo, the manager of Why Marriage Matters Ohio, said that concerns about a religious exemption in a proposed state constitutional amendment means his group will oppose the effort. Why Marriage Matters Ohio is a coalition of Equality Ohio, the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU and Freedom to Marry.
The proposed “Freedom to Marry and Religious Freedom Amendment” is an effort of FreedomOhio, a statewide advocacy group that is collecting signatures to place the measure on the Nov. 4 general-election ballot.
FreedomOhio’s amendment, which would erase the state’s current one-man, one-woman definition and allow marriage between two consenting adults, also reiterates the right of churches and other houses of worship to refuse wedding ceremonies for anyone they don’t like.
Executive Director Ian James said FreedomOhio already has more than the 385,000 signatures needed to put the issue on the statewide ballot but wants to collect 1 million names before a July 2 deadline.
But Premo said FreedomOhio’s wording — “no religious institution shall be required to perform or recognize a marriage” — opens the door for religiously affiliated hospitals to deny the spousal rights of same-sex couples.
“The part about ‘recognize a marriage’ has never been included in any successful ballot initiative,” he said. “It poses real problems for people. It would lead to a whole bunch of lawsuits.”
As a result, he said, the groups involved in Why Marriage Matters Ohio won’t support the initiative if it goes to the ballot and would “educate our members” about why they’re against it.
“We would have to say we can’t support it because of the problems it would pose,” Premo said.
Why Marriage Matters can’t explicitly tell people to vote against the amendment because it’s an educational and not a political organization. But telling people why the group opposes Freedom Ohio’s effort without crossing that line is permissible.
James said Why Marriage Matters leaders are wrong about the proposed amendment. “Religious institutions” are churches, synagogues, mosques and organizations that proselytize for their faith.
Hospitals, whether affiliated with a church or not, are regulated as businesses and would not allowed to deny patients and families the rights to make medical decisions or visit each other that come with marriage, James said.
He cited the 2012 flap over an Affordable Care Act provision that required employers to cover birth control in company health plans. Churches and other houses of worship were exempt, but Catholic health systems were not.
“Placing a crucifix, Star of David or crescent … over a door doesn’t make a building a religious institution,” James said in an email to supporters. “It’s about the work, not the affiliation. Winning marriage equality is much the same.”
James told Outlook Columbus that the wording was drafted by lawyers with Equality Ohio’s help back in 2011 when the two groups were working together on marriage equality.
They since have split over strategy and timing; FreedomOhio wants a vote this year, while Equality Ohio leaders say the issue shouldn’t go to the ballot until polling indicates consistently that a solid majority favors equality.
“The polling we’re seeing shows support is well below the mid-50s range that we would need,” Premo said.
He said Why Marriage Matters Ohio partners have ruled out their own ballot initiative on marriage equality this year. Although those who oppose a 2014 vote have said a losing effort would set back the effort for marriage equality in Ohio, Premo said Why Marriage Matters would push an amendment in 2015 or 2016 if the FreedomOhio initiative fails.
James suggested that Equality Ohio, which addresses all issues involving LGBT civil rights in the state, work instead for a statewide vote on the Equal Housing and Employment Act, a proposed non-discrimination law that a 2013 poll showed is supported by 79 percent of people in the state. The Ohio General Assembly has not voted on the bill.
James said FreedomOhio is considering taking up that cause as a ballot initiative, in addition to its push for a vote on marriage equality.