Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Gay-marriage opponents wary

Legal challenges to petition drive could keep issue from getting on ballot

By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - The potential for legal challenges by an opposition group has backers of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage questioning whether to try for the November ballot.

Phil Burress, chairman of Cincinnati-based Ohioans to Protect Marriages, said that even if the group collects the 323,000 required signatures by Aug. 4, that doesn't guarantee the issue will go forward.

He is concerned the petition effort could be in vain if a group formed by Ohioans for Growth & Equality, a coalition of mainly gay organizations, files legal challenges that delay final certification of the signatures.

"The deeper we dig into this thing, the more concerned I am about this anti-democracy campaign on the other side," Burress said. "It's a very sad, dark day in Ohio when the process is not allowed to work."

The opposition group, Ohioans Protecting the Constitution, has not said specifically what it will do to stop the ballot initiative. But Donald McTigue, a top Ohio election attorney hired by the group, said, "I think they should be concerned about challenges."

McTigue's challenges recently stopped an effort to put a repeal of the penny sales tax increase on the November ballot. In 2003, he represented a group attempting to require Ohio to form a pool to purchase prescription drugs. Court filings from the pharmaceutical industry stalled the effort.

Challenges can be filed in each individual county where petitions are certified, leading to potentially dozens of court cases all over the state.

With ballot initiatives often working under tight deadlines, challenges don't have to be successful as long as they run out the clock.

"This is becoming a blood sport for lawyers and a travesty for citizens who want to even the playing field with institutional staff and lobbyists," said Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Ohio's top election official and leader in trying to get the sales-tax repeal on the November ballot.

"Without question, it is too easy to discourage citizens from petitioning the government and participating in the political process."

McTigue agreed with Blackwell that the system of challenging petitions should be centralized in one court, instead of dozens - a move that would require legislative action. But he's prepared to work within the system in place today.

Alan Melamed, campaign manager for Ohioans Protecting the Constitution, said one potential challenge could stem from the way petitioners are describing the amendment to others. He doesn't think they're being truthful.

"We are not opposed to them putting it on the ballot," Melamed said. "We just want them to follow the same rules as everybody else."

Burress questions that sincerity. "If I am leaning, I'm leaning more toward moving forward and taking this to court because of the injustice of the other side's anti-democracy campaign," he said.

With just over a week before the deadline, Burress said his group is very close to the required number of signatures.


E-mail jsiegel@enquirer.com

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