Opponents of same-sex marriages want a proposed state constitutional amendment to also prohibit civil unions and stop local governments such as Tempe and Scottsdale from extending employee benefits to unmarried partners.
A coalition of political groups and Republican lawmakers have been preparing for two months to take advantage of this year’s more conservative Legislature to place a constitutional amendment before Arizona voters in 2006.
Previously, proponents had described the proposal as a way to make sure Arizona courts never would overturn a law that says marriage licenses can be offered only to couples consisting of one man and one woman. Opponents called the idea a political stunt to boost turnout of conservative voters as Republicans try to oust Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano in the same election.
Napolitano, who favors the existing law, highlighted the political criticism Wednesday morning by suggesting Republican lawmakers should call for a special election this year instead of waiting until 2006 if they believe the issue is urgent.
But in a private meeting later Wednesday at the state Senate, proponents of an amendment hammered out a plan that would go beyond Arizona’s Defense of Marriage Act.
They agreed to use language similar to a constitutional amendment approved by Ohio voters last year that forbids the state, cities and counties from conferring any legal status on unmarried couples. Eleven states approved measures to ban gay marriage on Nov. 2.
Rep. Warde Nichols, RChandler, said Arizona governments that provide domestic partner benefits are skirting the state ban on gay marriage.
"It’s not right to have a state entity to take taxpayer money and provide these benefits like they’re doing," said Nichols, who will be a leading sponsor of the proposed Arizona amendment.
Cathi Herrod, a lobbyist for the Scottsdale-based Center for Arizona Policy, said the Arizona amendment would affect only the domestic partner benefit policies of cities and other governments, not private employers.
Still, gay rights advocates were caught off-guard Wednesday by the scope of the proposal.
"With the local preemption issue, it kind of changes the debate," said Steve May, a former Republican legislator from Paradise Valley and co-chairman of the Arizona Human Rights Fund, a gay rights advocacy group.
"People just want to express their opinion that they don’t support gay marriage,’’ said May, who is gay. "That’s fine. But I also don’t think most Arizonans are meanspirited and taking away health insurance from domestic partners is something that most Arizonans would not support."
May said a broader amendment probably still will move through the Legislature, but should be easier to block from appearing on the 2006 ballot. Lawyers for the Human Rights Fund believe any proposal that also affects civil unions and domestic partner benefits would violate a constitutional ban on addressing more than one issue in the same amendment, May said.
Tempe, Scottsdale, Phoenix, Tucson and Pima County offer some type of domestic partner benefits to their employees, with most focusing on health insurance coverage.
Critics of a state constitutional amendment predicted the new plan will raise voter anger instead of gaining easy passage.
"It’s a tactical mistake on their part," said former Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano, who is gay. "I think they are overreaching and overgrabbing in the wake of the Republican victory this last November."
Nichols and other Republican lawmakers said a special election this year is unlikely because it would cost up to $4 million.