Even though the election is more than a year away, Arizona business leaders and political activists already are working behind the scenes to shape what promises to be the most contentious issue — a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Opponents will decide in the next several weeks whether to offer a competing ballot measure, basing their decision in part on how much support they get from area business leaders.
While the business community, including the East Valley Partnership, mulls whether to get involved, Gov. Janet Napolitano speaks tonight at the annual fundraiser for the Arizona Human Rights Fund, the state’s primary gay rights organization. And gay rights leaders are banking on her to oppose the amendment.
Napolitano has repeatedly said she opposes same-sex marriage, but the amendment would go further by preventing political jurisdictions from providing benefits to unmarried couples, including cohabitating heterosexuals.
"If she fails to stand and oppose this extreme amendment, I think she’ll be booed out of the room," said Steve May, co-chairman of Human Rights Fund. "I’ve got to believe that the governor wouldn’t come unless she has something positive to say."
Napolitano spokeswoman Patti Urias said the governor had no prepared remarks. "My understanding is, all she’s doing is participating in an awards ceremony."
Cathy Herrod of the Scottsdale-based Center for Arizona Policy, which is pushing the amendment, said she expects the governor to support it since she has voiced her opposition to same-sex marriage.
"We would expect her to maintain her position," Herrod said.
The matter is a dicey one for the governor.
If the Protect Marriage Arizona group collects 183,917 valid signatures by July 2006, she will share the November ballot with the gay marriage amendment. Similar ballot measures in 11 swing states were credited last fall with giving key races and the presidency to Republicans by bringing out the religious conservative base of the party.
If the measure passes, however, communities that already offer domestic-partner benefits — Tempe, Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tucson, as well as Pima County — will no longer be able to do so. Opponents say thousands of workers will lose benefits.
That’s got business leaders worried. The board of the East Valley Partnership discussed the matter last week and charged its government relations committee with finding out more about the potential impact of the amendment, as well as what a competing ballot measure might say.
Some of the states’s largest employers offer domestic partner benefits.
Privately, some business owners say they fear the amendment could make it more difficult to recruit workers and paint the state in an unflattering light, much as the battle over a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. did in the 1980s.
Herrod said that kind of backlash hasn’t occurred in 18 states that have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, so it’s unreasonable to expect it to happen here.
"It does not affect the business community at all," she said.
A legal brief by Phoenix attorney Lisa Hauser, however, casts some doubt on that.
"Passage of (Protect Marriage Arizona) could have sweeping effects on both the public and private sectors," she concluded in the brief, completed this week for the Human Rights Fund.
Hauser compared the language of the Arizona amendment to similar provisions in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Utah. Of those states, Ohio’s is the broadest and most similar to the Protect Marriage amendment. Hauser said some legal scholars have questioned whether the state would be able to contract with companies that offer domestic partner benefits "if hiring a company amounts to the state sanctioning the company’s policies."
A key difference between Arizona’s language and that of the states where gay marriage bans were passed in November is that it would deny benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples, Hauser said in the brief.
"Having, no doubt, analyzed the language used in all 13 2004 constitutional amendments, this choice by the drafters of the (Arizona measure) is legally significant and tends to indicate an intent to prevent government from conferring any legal status on unmarried couples of the opposite sex as well as same sex couples," she wrote.
Herrod said the amendment would apply to benefits regardless of sexual orientation. "If it gives a legal status to unmarried individuals," she said, "it would not be allowed."
Napolitano and the business community would be hard-pressed to support that clause, said Arizona State University pollster Bruce Merrill. Although a majority of Arizonans oppose same-sex marriage, most support domesticpartner benefits, he said.
"I think that is enough to defeat that amendment," he said. "I would be surprised if (the governor) would support denying benefits to any domestic partner."
Greg Polzin, executive director of the Human Rights Fund, said the business community has encouraged them to launch a competing amendment, but they would need significant financial backing. A decision will be made before summer’s end, he said.
Merrill said it would be a smart political move.
"What the religious right is hoping is that it will be a strong enough issue to defeat Napolitano in the next election," he said. "In terms of a political chess game, it would be very important for Democrats to launch an opposing initiative."
Proposed constitutional amendment
"To preserve and protect marriage in this state, only a union between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage by this state or its political subdivisions and no legal status for unmarried persons shall be created or recognized by this state or its political subdivisions that is similar to that of marriage."