Ohio

Ohio LGBT advocacy groups at odds (again) over gay marriage strategy

BOB VITALE | Outlook Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A short-lived show of unity Wednesday between Equality Ohio and Freedom Ohio deteriorated quickly as the allies-turned-rivals-turned-allies turned into rivals again.

And it’s unclear whether they’ll talk again about efforts to put a marriage equality measure on the Ohio ballot.

“I think I’d have a hard time,” Equality Ohio Executive Director Elyzabeth Holford told Outlook this morning when asked whether meetings scheduled next week with representatives of national LGBT groups would include Freedom Ohio cofounder Ian James.

“What we’re really talking about is trust.”

The Ohio groups that have been at odds since last spring over the timing of efforts to revisit the state’s 2004 same-sex marriage ban seemed for the last month or more as if they had set aside those disagreements.

But one word in a Freedom Ohio news release about Wednesday’s meeting caused Holford, the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign and New York-based Freedom to Marry to back away again.

Freedom Ohio announced Wednesday that it had decided to wait until 2014 to seek a statewide vote on its proposed Marriage Equality and Religious Freedom Amendment, which would overturn the decade-old marriage ban and extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

In comments about the meeting, though, with Equality Ohio, HRC, Freedom to Marry, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and other national groups, James noted that the groups “discussed how to become involved in the campaign to bring marriage equality to Ohio in 2014.”

Holford said the groups did discuss forming a coalition to move forward on the issue in Ohio, perhaps as early as 2014 but no later than 2016.

But they talked about “ ‘a’ campaign, not ‘the’ campaign,” she said.

That means they talked about working together on a marriage equality campaign, she said, not joining the Freedom Ohio effort.

“Who are the best people to do that?” she said. “We had them all at the table yesterday.”

James said he thought an online story by the Dayton Daily News was the cause of confusion because it incorrectly stated that the groups were uniting on a 2014 campaign. Freedom Ohio has been collecting signatures across Ohio to force a statewide vote.

“I’m sorry they misread or misunderstood,” James told Outlook. “It was very clear that we are going forward in 2014 and hope that all these great groups will want to work with us. We did not do what they accused us of doing.”

He then issued a statement last night that read:

“The executive committee for Freedom Ohio voted to go to the ballot in 2014. The only confusion here is what organization crafted language, had it approved and has been collecting signatures in Ohio. That organization and that decision is Freedom Ohio’s because we have been the only organization on the ground while others stood around and watched.

Our LGBT friends in state and nationally are welcome to join us, or they can sit this one out. Either way, we are going to be on the ballot in 2014 and will run a robust and winning campaign. Period.”

The Human Rights Campaign emailed a clarification Wednesday after James’s initial news release. The group said no agreement was reached to go forward with a campaign in 2014 or any other date.

“Instead, all of the groups in attendance, including Freedom Ohio and nearly a dozen other leading organizations, agreed to work together to talk to Ohio voters about why marriage matters and strengthen our coalition in the months ahead, reserving judgment on the timing of a ballot initiative until a clear pathway to victory could be determined and carried out,” it said.

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The news release included a statement from HRC National Field Director Marty Rouse, who was part of 2012 discussions when James and Equality Ohio leaders worked together on early versions of a marriage-equality plan.

“Ian James must have attended a different meeting than the rest of us,” Rouse said in HRC’s release Wednesday. “Representatives from 11 state and national organizations participated in today’s meeting. Ten of them came away with a clear understanding that we would refrain from deciding on timing until it was responsible to do so. We’re perplexed as to how Freedom Ohio came away with a different understanding.”

Freedom Ohio and the Equality Ohio/HRC alliance split later in 2012 over the timing and structure of a marriage-equality campaign.

Holford and James began talking this spring, however, and Freedom Ohio urged its volunteers to participate in an Equality Ohio effort in May to lobby legislators on an anti-discrimination bill.

James said he’ll continue to meet with the other groups if he’s invited.

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