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... And how to fight back

National | The defeat of one "domestic partner" plan provides a blueprint for social conservatives

Issue: "Kosovo: What's next?," April 10, 1999

in Columbus, Ohio - Like most family pets, Sheldon has the run of attorney Jay Meena's Columbus, Ohio, home and office. Perhaps "run" isn't quite the right word. The big box turtle has his own dish for dog food (and the occasional strawberry), and he prefers sleeping near heater vents or in patches of sunshine. Sheldon is, Mr. Meena admits, a compromise. Mr. Meena's wife is a veterinarian, but Mr. Meena is violently allergic to furry animals. Hence Sheldon, a turtle brought in to Mrs. Meena's clinic with a cracked shell a few years ago. They nursed the turtle back to health, and now he slowly, carefully ambles about the couple's house. Although not as cuddly as a collie, he has a surprising amount of personality. Like the Meenas' decision on Sheldon, last month's win by social conservatives in a Columbus, Ohio, homosexual-rights skirmish was both careful and providential. After trying to quietly pass a "domestic-partners" benefits package for city employees, the Columbus city council backed down and repealed the package after conservatives showed they could put the measure on a May ballot and defeat it at the polls. The win was minor, and perhaps temporary, but these days a win's a win-and that makes it worth studying. "The issue isn't going away," says Mr. Meena. "Not for anyone. It's going to come back. But we were able to win this time, and I think we can win when it comes up again." What did Columbus conservatives do right? Mr. Meena cites several emphases that activists elsewhere can emulate:

  • They developed a bipartisan effort. It wasn't just conservative Christian Republicans fighting against the homosexual lobby, and therefore it was harder for them to be written off as radical right-wingers.
  • They developed a biracial effort. The involvement of black churches, pastors, and spokesmen helped answer the charge that opposition to the homosexual agenda amounts to discrimination.
  • They did not make opposition to the domestic-partners benefits package a religious issue. They provided reasons for even non-religious voters to support their side.
  • They kept their politics purely local, thereby not giving the other side ammunition for charges that they were a front for large, outside organizations. "But first," says Mr. Meena, a bearded and bespectacled real estate attorney, "we have to know what is going on out there. Social conservatives should be subscribing to and reading, I'd almost say religiously, the gay press. Because in those publications, they're telling us what they're going to do and what they're thinking." Ohio has several homosexually oriented periodicals, including the Gay People's Chronicle and Columbus Alive. And it was in the gay press, Mr. Meena says, that the real purpose of a domestic-partners benefits package was openly discussed. The package, with a modest $550,000 annual price tag, would have provided live-in "domestic partners" of city employees (of either the same sex or the opposite sex) with medical, dental, vision, and prescription drug coverage. It was really about acceptance, the Gay People's Chronicle admitted, about giving homosexuals "a chance to feel what it's like to have their families acknowledged and valued like other families." Mr. Meena himself shows the advantage of making such efforts bipartisan. A lifelong Democrat, he's a member of the area's Democratic Central Committee. And that befuddled The Columbus Dispatch, which clearly wanted to dismiss opponents of the benefits package as wacko right-wingers. "Republicans and Democrats have to get together on these issues," says Mr. Meena. "You've got to seek out and find the social conservatives in the Democratic party. There's a difference between discrimination and special treatment for a sexual preference-find the Democrats who understand that." And here's where black churches and leaders can be extremely effective. Eric Seabrook, a black attorney (he concentrates on intellectual property law), was one of the main spokesmen for opponents of the benefits package. "It's not something we set out to do, but it's something we took note of as it was happening," he says. "People of all races were coming together to pursue the purpose of God. It helped us win, yes, but it did more than that. Working together for God provided the basis for real racial reconciliation." Politically, the biracial effort took away a powerful weapon from homosexual-rights activists. "It's hard to accuse an African-American man of discrimination," Mr. Seabrook says. "And we all know that images are very important." He explains that blacks as a group are actually very conservative, but they're suspicious of the Republican party. Still, black churches and pastors have a long history of being politically active, and they're often ready to join in this battle, as long as their potential allies don't come off as right-wingers: "The gay movement has capitalized on and tried to piggyback itself on the civil-rights movement," says Mr. Seabrook. "And that trivializes the black experience. The Stonewall incident [a riot at a gay bar in New York City 25 years ago] was ugly, yes, but it does not compare to the Middle Passage," the horror of slave ships. The secret to securing the support of black churches, he says, is to keep the rhetoric from becoming mean-spirited. "African-Americans are very sensitive to any kind of discrimination, as everyone should be," he says. "At the same time you're doing this, you must be in the forefront of condemning any act of violence or discrimination against gays." Providing secular arguments to a secular audience is also vital, Mr. Seabrook says. "Don't use Christian words and Christian arguments. That's not being ashamed of the gospel-that's being prudent, as Paul was at Mars Hill. We've got to learn to communicate our positions without citing chapter and verse-because once you bring in the Bible, you turn a large number of people off, people who might otherwise support you." Secular arguments are plentiful. In Columbus, for example, opponents of the benefits package pointed to the cost, and also to the fact that no other city in the state has such a measure. They noted the stealthy way in which the city council passed the plan (even the city's sole major newspaper didn't know about it until the day it was voted on). They explained the advantage of continuing to prefer traditional marriage. Attorney Diana Harkness prepared a one-page information sheet listing facts and citing sources, but not mentioning God. That page helped persuade many of the 10,000 people who signed petitions to put the benefits issue on the May ballot. A local flavor is just as important, Mr. Meena adds. The Columbus Dispatch was on the lookout for "outside money and extremists to exaggerate and inflame local issues to suit their own purposes," according to an editorial. But Mr. Meena and others took care to not give the other side extra ammunition for vast right-wing conspiracy theories. Some factors were special to the Columbus skirmish that cannot be replicated elsewhere; for example, the manner in which the city council attempted to sneak through the measure was offensive, and therefore helpful to conservatives. The Dispatch was aghast and immediately ran an editorial titled, "Not so fast." Also, the package included benefits for heterosexual, non-married partners. Surprisingly, shacking up seemed more offensive to some in the general public than homosexual relationships. Mayoral candidate Dorothy Teater, a liberal Republican, took issue not with homosexuality, but benefits for living together. Finally, Columbus conservatives already had a biracial, bipartisan network in place, because of a similar battle with the Columbus School Board last year (which proposed, then rejected an anti-harassment policy that included "sexual orientation"). So when they learned of the city council's measure, they were able to respond quickly, gathering more than 10,000 signatures in 10 days, despite a January snow storm. Ultimately, the benefits package was withdrawn, rather than placed on the May ballot. That's because, according to the Columbus city charter, once the public votes on an issue it can never be reintroduced without another vote. And that's why this win was relatively minor. "I'm glad we won," says Fred Marshall, who pastors a black Baptist church in south Columbus and helped lead the fight. "But this is an ongoing thing. We've got to remain watchful." Mr. Marshall does not have a turtle, but he likes to tell his own animal story. Midway through the brief campaign, he arrived at church and checked his mail. Inside the mailbox he found a tarantula spider, along with a copy of the city's employee health insurance policy. The policy had paragraphs about embalming and organ donation highlighted. "I just took a brick and killed him," Mr. Marshall says. "I took him inside and we had Bible study on him that night. The subject was fear and trembling."

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