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Indiana gay marriage opponents press forward, even as tides shift

Indiana gay marriage opponents press forward, even as tides shift
AJ Mast, APIndiana state Rep. Eric Turner speaks during debate on a proposed amendment to the state's constitution to ban same-sex marriage in the House of Representatives at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.
AJ Mast, AP
Indiana state Rep. Eric Turner speaks during debate on a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage in the House of Representatives at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.

INDIANAPOLIS — Opponents of same-sex marriage have spent more than a decade working to ensure that Indiana stayed true to its conservative roots by strengthening its stance against gay unions. But in a year that was expected to bring a crucial victory, they find themselves facing a strong headwind.

Federal courts have overturned same-sex marriage bans in Oklahoma, Utah and New Mexico, and 19 states now allow gay marriage or civil unions.

Even in Indiana, support for a proposed amendment that would insert the state’s ban on gay marriage into the constitution is wavering amid concerns about its impact on businesses’ ability to attract top workers and offer domestic partner benefits.

Impassioned supporters of the ban aren’t daunted. For them, the issue isn’t about business needs or discrimination. It’s about faith and values that they say would be compromised if Indiana doesn’t take the extra step to ensure marriage can be between only a man and a woman.

“I believe we need to reinforce marriage and define marriage … or we are going to open up through sexual anarchy all types of confusion in our country, especially with what’s happening with our young people,” Ron Johnson, executive of the Indiana Pastors Alliance, told a House committee during a recent hearing on the amendment.

Indiana has long been a champion of conservative causes, from right-to-work legislation to restrictions on abortion. Lawmakers launched the nation’s broadest school voucher program and have cracked down on illegal immigration in recent years. But it lacks the reputation as a hotbed of social or religious conservatism that other, mostly southern, states have.

Only 46 percent of Indiana residents considered themselves “very religious” in a Gallup report published at the start of the month, said Gallup Polls editor in chief Frank Newport. That’s lower than Mississippi’s 61 percent and well above Vermont’s 22 percent, the lowest in the nation. The national average was about 41 percent.

Indiana’s status in the middle of the pack could be compounding the fight over the gay marriage amendment, which passed with broad bipartisan support in 2011 but must pass again this year to be placed on the November ballot.

Recent polls have shown increasing numbers of Indiana voters oppose a constitutional ban, even though most still oppose gay marriage. And even lawmakers who supported the ban in 2011 are questioning whether it would be better to let the issue die instead of putting the state in what’s likely to become a protracted legal battle. Activists on both sides of the issue say the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately will decide the issue for Indiana and other states.

“When I cast this vote to support this measure in 2011 it was one of the easiest votes I ever cast,” said Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City. “I believe in marriage between one man and one woman and my constituents overwhelmingly did as well.”

Mahan said he began to have doubts this year after constituents of various political and religious stripes began asking him to oppose the measure and a pair of Christian colleges in his district decided not to take a stance on the issue.

Other lawmakers have stood fast, saying their faith is the reason they stand by the proposed ban.

“Somebody said to me ‘You know what, Burton? Part of what your problem is, is you let your faith get in the way,'” said Rep. Woody Burton, R-Whiteland. “I said ‘I certainly hope so.’ I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not going to back away from it.”

Religious groups pushing the amendment have used their weekends to activate digital networks of supporters. Indianapolis-based Advance America has provided phone numbers, emails and a call script, to pressure senators to restore the civil unions language that was stripped by the House when the chamber takes up the measure next week.

The Indiana Family Institute has sent out Facebook blasts urging supporters to press lawmakers. Referencing the ram’s horn used to rally troops in biblical accounts, the group wrote on its page, “I’d blow the Shofar if I had one. Now is the time to act.”

Opponents of the amendment, including universities, top employers and many mayors, have walked a careful line, avoiding discussions of morality while arguing that banning gay marriage in the constitution would hurt the state’s pro-business image.

They claimed a victory when the Republican-controlled House voted cut out language that would also bar civil unions, a move that could restart the amendment process and delay a potential ballot vote until 2016. But they know the civil unions language could resurface before the Legislature adjourns in mid-March.

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