Sunday, July 18, 2004

N.Ky. gay-union battle brewing

By Patrick Crowley
Enquirer staff writer

Backers of a statewide constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and denying legal recognition of civil unions expect to carry Northern Kentucky on Election Day.

The region is known across Kentucky for its socially conservative politics and politicians. State lawmakers routinely carry the mantle in Frankfort for legislation that restricts abortion, bans cloning and touts prayer in school. All four of the area's state senators voted in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot.

"It's a slam dunk here," said Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Crescent Springs, one of the region's leading political conservatives and an ardent supporter of the amendment.

But opponents, led by gay-rights activists and buoyed by previous political success, are not conceding Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties.

They vow to use grass-roots organization, voter registration drives and public awareness campaigns to make Northern Kentucky a battleground over the amendment.

"It's going to be a very concerted effort," said Frank Caliguri of Kenton County.

Caliguri is an active member of the Northern Kentucky Chapter of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance.

"This is one of the largest population centers of the state, and we're going to have a lot of visibility here," Caliguri said. "This issue is too important not to fight everywhere we can."

The Kentucky Fairness Alliance, based in Louisville, has raised about $200,000 to defeat the amendment. It has retained Sarah Reece to run the opposition campaign. She most recently worked as a field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"We are going to appeal to right-minded people in Northern Kentucky and across the state who don't believe in discrimination," Reece said.

Opponents of the amendment say action last year in Covington, where city commissioners unanimously passed a human-rights ordinance, improves their chances in the gay marriage debate.

Modeled after laws in other Kentucky cities, it bans discrimination based on sexual orientation as well as age, marital status and parental status. Many of the same people who pushed for Covington's ordinance are working to defeat the marriage amendment.

"The human-rights ordinance definitely showed an opening for people who don't want to write discrimination into the constitution," said Dean Forster of Covington, co-chairman of the Northern Kentucky Fairness Alliance.

In a partial response to the aggressive political maneuvers being made by the opposition, amendment supporters are stepping up their campaign.

The Lexington-based Family Foundation, a socially conservative advocacy group, was instrumental in convincing lawmakers to put the issue on the November ballot.

Foundation President Kent Ostrander announced last week the "Vote YES for Marriage" effort. "Vote YES for Marriage is meant to promote the importance of the institution of marriage to society in general and to children in particular, as well as the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman," Ostrander said.

At first, the Foundation had not planned much involvement in the amendment campaign. They decided to jump in after opponents hired Reece and began organizing statewide, and the U.S. Senate failed last week to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages, Ostrander said.

A Louisville Courier-Journal statewide Bluegrass Poll conducted in early May found that 70 percent of Kentuckians favor the amendment, with 25 percent against and 6 percent undecided.

The poll of 665 likely voters had a margin of error of 3.8 percent. It showed that in Northern Kentucky - which includes the outlying rural counties in the region - 79 percent of voters were for the amendment with just 16 percent against it and 5 percent undecided.

But in the state's five most urban counties - Boone, Kenton, Campbell, Jefferson and Fayette - support reached just 55 percent.

To Forster, that means it may be worth trolling for votes.

Amendment opponents plan to talk with voters in Newport and Covington next weekend.


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