Groups strategize next move on gay rights front - East Valley Tribune: News

Groups strategize next move on gay rights front

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Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2008 8:07 pm | Updated: 11:23 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Just weeks after voters approved amending Arizona's Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, some gay rights activists already are looking toward 2010.

A man who champions equality for gays in the United Kingdom has traveled here to launch a drive for a ballot initiative that would establish civil partnerships, which since 2005 have allowed same-sex couples to legally register their relationships.

"We're not fighting for marriage; we're fighting for equal rights," said Gino Meriano, whose business, Pink Weddings, arranges commitment ceremonies and provides free legal advice for gay couples wishing to establish civil partnerships.

But Steen Lawson, co-founder of Marriage Equality USA's new Arizona chapter, said civil unions don't go far enough. His group wants same-sex couples to have the same rights as heterosexual couples who wish to marry.

"Since government uses the word marriage, we must fight for marriage," Lawson said.

Meriano, Lawson and others are looking for a next step in response to Proposition 102, which Arizona voters approved Nov. 4. Given that the initiative amended Arizona's Constitution, making a legal challenge difficult, opponents of Prop. 102 say any next step likely would be a ballot proposition.

John Garcia, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona, said it would be tough in the current political climate for gay rights leaders to make the gains Lawson wants. But he said civil unions are a realistic goal.

"If new propositions focus in on civil unions, they will gain the necessary votes to pass," Garcia said.

While the United Kingdom offers civil partnerships, Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire offer civil unions, which provide the same benefits for same-sex couples. Massachusetts and Connecticut are the only states allowing same-sex marriage since California voters approved Proposition 8 in November.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said it's easy to come up with ideas for initiatives that would establish civil unions or give same-sex couples the right to marry; she said she hears those regularly.

"The problem is they don't have the money or time to fund it," she said, estimating that would take $3 million to run a successful campaign.

That kind of money wasn't available this year for opponents of Prop. 102. While supporters raised $7.7 million, most of it from individuals, opposition groups raised $820,000, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State's Office.

Cynthia Leigh Lewis, campaign treasurer for Arizona Together, an anti-Prop. 102 group that raised $746,000, said this isn't a good time to push for either gay marriage or civil unions. She said the economy would make it difficult to raise enough money, and she said the passage of Prop. 102 and GOP gains in the Legislature illustrate a difficult political climate for such a move.

However, Meriano, who has yet to submit the paperwork necessary to begin gathering signatures, said he thinks an initiative seeking civil partnerships for gay couples can win because it takes marriage out of the debate.

"The campaign is simple: Vote no for gay marriage, vote yes for civil partnerships," he said.

Lawson said he and other leaders of Marriage Equality USA think civil unions wouldn't have equal standing with marriage.

"If someone could show me that a civil partnership was 100 percent equal I would be for it," he said. "But no one has ever shown me a civil partnership that is 100 percent equal."

Equality Arizona, a statewide organization seeking gay rights and civil rights, campaigned against Prop. 102 and is still evaluating its options for 2010, said Sam Holdren, the group's public affairs director. But he said it isn't a good time to push for same-sex marriage.

"We have to take a look at what's going on," Holdren said. "Realistically, marriage is off the table in Arizona."

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