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Democrat May Hold Key to Gay Marriages

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The letters and the phone calls keep coming. Angry ones. Friendly ones. Some filled with dispassionate reasoning, others raging with fire and brimstone.

As the state Senate nears a key decision on gay marriages, Sen. Jack O’Connell (D-Santa Barbara) has been targeted as the pivotal vote on whether California will legally recognize same-gender marriages sanctioned by other states.

The senator remains publicly undecided on the issue--a position that has put him in the cross hairs of an intense lobbying campaign.

Conservative Christian activists and taxpayer advocates have deluged his office with letters, petitions and phone calls. They even hired a pollster to tally the overwhelming opposition to gay marriages among voters in his district, which includes Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and parts of western Ventura County.

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Given the views of his constituents, conservatives believe that O’Connell can be swayed to support an Assembly-passed bill that would deny legal recognition to same-sex marriages performed in other states.

They say O’Connell holds the fifth vote they need to push the bill through the nine-member Senate Judiciary Committee.

“If Jack O’Connell votes for the bill, it will pass,” said Andy Pugno, an aide to the bill’s author, Assemblyman William J. “Pete” Knight (R-Palmdale).

Not to be outmatched, civil libertarians and gay activists have mounted their own furious letter-writing campaign to persuade O’Connell to denounce the bill.

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“If they send 65 form letters, we send 55 heart-filled personal letters,” said Neil Demers-Grey, director of Unity Pride Coalition of Ventura County.

As for O’Connell, he said the intensity of the heat is approaching what he felt during the Legislature’s ban of assault weapons. His vote in favor of the weapons ban spawned an unsuccessful recall campaign against him.

“This time it’s been a ton of correspondence and a ton of telephone calls from both sides,” O’Connell said.

So far, O’Connell has declined to divulge his views, saying he will not make a decision until the Judiciary Committee holds a hearing. The committee is supposed to take up the bill by July 9.

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The issue of same-sex marriages has resurfaced this year because a court case in Hawaii is expected to legalize such unions in that state.

Under the U.S. Constitution, California is supposed to recognize legal contracts, such as marriages, from other states. So conservative lawmakers across the nation have responded with dozens of bills to allow states to deny such legal status.

Knight said he is pushing his bill because he is concerned about the costs of extending benefits to same-sex partners of state workers. Gay and lesbian couples who obtain marriage licenses from other states would be entitled to the same health, legal and financial benefits afforded to heterosexual couples.

Moreover, the debate has taken on moralistic tones.

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The bill, Knight said, “protects California from being forced to cross the line from a position of tolerance to one of government promotion of the homosexual lifestyle.”

Propelled by arguments about eroding the sanctity of marriage and demeaning family values, the bill zipped through the Republican-controlled Assembly in January.

Ellen McCormick of LIFE: California’s Lesbian, Gay and AIDS Lobby, said these arguments echo those promoting laws that banned interracial marriages. Such laws existed in some states until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1967.

“They have no legitimate argument to defend such blatant discrimination,” McCormick said. “So they go for the emotional, homophobic. . . . ‘God meant it this way. What will happen to the children?’ They associate gay marriage with the decline of Western civilization.”

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Three Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee support Knight’s bill. Two of the six Democrats on the committee have announced their opposition.

Four Democratic senators have not taken public positions.

Lobbyists on both sides expect Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) to oppose the gay-marriage ban. Given that Sens. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier) and Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland) cannot run for reelection under term limits, conservatives have nudged O’Connell the hardest to break from Democratic ranks.

The Capitol Resource Institute, a Sacramento conservative group focused on family issues, released poll results last week showing that his voting constituents, by a 2-1 ratio, oppose giving legal recognition to homosexual marriages.

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