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Georgia House Puts Amendment Banning Gay Marriages on Ballot

Times Staff Writer

Georgia’s House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, ensuring the question would be put before voters on the November ballot.

The 122-52 vote came after weeks of tension in the Legislature. In its first consideration of the ban, most of the Democratic-controlled House voted in favor of the measure, but it fell three votes short of the two-thirds required for passage.

On Wednesday, four Democratic members of the Legislature’s Black Caucus provided the additional votes needed to pass the amendment, putting their conservative social beliefs ahead of party loyalty.

“We’ve very gratified that in the final analysis, the members of the Black Caucus broke away and voted their conscience,” said Sadie Fields, state chairwoman of the Christian Coalition of Georgia. “They had time to reflect on the impact of this vote. If Georgia could not hold the line, being a Southern state, I think we could have seen homosexual unions around the country.”

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Georgia was the second state to rule on gay marriage this week. The Massachusetts Legislature on Monday took the first step toward establishing a constitutional ban on same-sex weddings in response to a court ruling that made such unions legal.

As the debate wore on in Georgia on Wednesday, the vote count was so close that some gay-marriage advocates watching the session on a monitor outside the chamber could not even look. When the final tally appeared on the screen, a few began to sob.

As the subdued crowd dispersed, one supporter said he feared that the November referendum would poison the atmosphere in Georgia -- encouraging open discrimination or even violence against gays and lesbians.

“This is as bitter a battle as you can get -- one group fighting for their God, and the other group fighting for their lives,” said Larry Pellegrini of the Georgia Rural-Urban Summit, a coalition of liberal interest groups. “I don’t know which side the first martyr will come from.”

Georgia already has a law banning gay marriage. But conservative lawmakers here said they were prompted by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling to seek the further protection of a constitutional amendment.

The issue has revealed deep divisions within the black majority here. When the bill came before the Senate, all 14 members of the Black Caucus opposed it, and the House vote promised to be similar.

But in the last several weeks, a group of black pastors led a protest in favor of the ban; they said they were offended by the comparison between the movement for gay marriage and the civil rights struggle.

“People are free in our nation to pursue relationships as they choose,” the pastors said in a statement. “To redefine marriage, however, to suit the preference of those choosing alternative lifestyles is wrong.”

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Meanwhile, old-guard black leaders lined up against the amendment. Last week Coretta Scott King -- the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and John Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Atlanta, likened the battle for gay rights to the civil rights movement.

During Wednesday’s debate, several black legislators pleaded with their colleagues to focus on traditional Democratic issues such as fighting poverty instead of arguing among themselves over gay and lesbian marriage.

“We won’t be talking about those [core] issues next year if we don’t control the House,” said Rep. Alisha Thomas-Morgan, who voted against the amendment. “Ask someone in the unemployment line if gay marriage is going to get them a job.”

Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a Democrat who is president of the Georgia Assn. of Black Elected Officials, said the split among black lawmakers was unprecedented in his 24-year legislative career.

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“It’s a major disappointment, because the legislative Black Caucus should have been united 100%,” he said. “Four African Americans peeled off with the Republicans to give them a huge victory tonight.”

But Fields said that the black legislators who voted for the ban Wednesday had gotten a strong message from the pastors and other black constituents in the weeks since the first vote.

“They needed the clarity and encouragement from members of their own community,” she said.

Advocates for gay marriage said the week had brought an exhausting series of ups and downs. As Kate Shropshire, 29, waited for an elevator following the vote, tears began to run down her face.

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“I’m so disappointed in our Legislature and in the people that call themselves Christians,” Shropshire said. “This is the place I’ve chosen to make my home, and it’s so backward.”


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