Crist takes 'live and let live' approach to marriage vote

Gay marriage foes get ballot signatures.

By JACOB H. FRIES, Times Staff Writer
Published December 14, 2007

Floridians will almost certainly vote on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in November, just don't expect the state's top Republican to stump for it.

"It's not an issue that moves me," Gov. Charlie Crist told reporters Thursday after sponsors of the initiative announced they had enough signatures to get it on the ballot.

Crist is listed as an endorser of the amendment on the Web site, www.florida4marriage.org, and while running for governor, he signed a petition in support of such a ban. But in February, he asked the GOP to stop donating money to the effort and, Thursday, he said he'd rather focus on raising teacher pay, reducing property taxes and combatting climate change.

"I'm just a live and let live kind of guy," the governor said.

The campaign to put a same-sex marriage ban in Florida's Constitution began nearly three years ago. Thursday, proponents announced they had collected the 611,009 signatures required to put the issue before voters. Officially, the petition was still 253 signatures short, but election officials said their data was updated once a day and might not reflect the actual total.

Nevertheless, the initiative's supporters claimed victory.

"The people of Florida have spoken today, and they will speak again on Nov. 4, 2008," said John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer who leads a coalition of sponsoring groups. "I think the message is timeless and it is clear: Marriage is the union of one man and one woman."

Florida already has a law banning same-sex marriage, but Stemberger said a constitutional amendment was needed to prevent legal challenges in the future. Currently, 27 other states have passed constitutional bans on gay marriage.

"An activist judge, with one stroke of a pen, can shut down a fundamental human institution," he said. "We're here for the long run. ... We're doing this to protect this institution literally for centuries to come in Florida."

Opponents of the measure, however, fervently attacked it, saying that it not only threatens the rights of gay and lesbian people, but all unmarried couples in Florida.

Bentley Lipscomb, former state director of Florida AARP, said the measure could have a large, unintended impact on elderly couples, many of whom don't marry because it would change their Social Security benefits.

"The way they drafted it, it will cause a problem," he said. "Nonmarried couples would not be able to enjoy the same ability to take care of each other. ... Even visiting them in the hospital when they are terminal would be problematic. Then there's the whole question of making decisions about the end of life."

Similar constitutional bans in other states ultimately led to even greater infringement of people's rights, said Stephen Gaskill, a spokesman for Florida Red and Blue, an organization created to oppose the proposal.

"If there's a possibility at all that one Floridian would lose a right they have or a benefit they receive, why would we open the door to that?" Gaskill said. "It's a massive government intrusion into people's personal lives. We don't believe that is where Florida voters want the government to be."

Stemberger countered, saying opponents were uninformed and misleading the public about the real impact.

"It's just a pathetic, desperate strategy," he said.

Times staff writer Asjylyn Loder contributed to this report.


The amendment

The amendment would add a new section to Article I: "Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized."