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Gay Rights Groups Spar Over Possible Ballot Issue

A spat over when, not whether, to put before voters an amendment legalizing same-sex marriage in Ohio may be overshadowing the amendment itself. For a time, the big news for several gay rights activists was that a Wednesday meeting in Columbus marked the largest-ever gathering of national marriage equality leaders. Fred Sainz is with the Human Rights Campaign, which has been involved in several same-sex marriage ballot issues that have been approved by voters and has been watching the battleground state of Ohio.

When that meeting concluded, there were zero decisions that had been reached in terms of when this would be on the ballot.

But not long after that meeting, the head of an Ohio-based group that’s been gathering signatures to put a same-sex marriage amendment before voters issued a news release, saying it will be on the ballot next year. Ian James says he was speaking only for his group Freedom Ohio. “No one else is in charge of that campaign. We want to move forward beyond ’13 and into 2014. And that’s what we said. And that’s what we said. We also said we were glad to meet with other LGBT leaders around the country to talk about marriage equality.â€? There’s been a struggle between James and Freedom Ohio and Ohio’s leading gay rights group, Equality Ohio. James has wanted the amendment on the ballot soon, saying polls show it has support, and has recruited some high-profile Democrats to help. Equality Ohio preferred to wait, noting that voters approved an amendment defining marriage as only between one man and one woman less than 10 years ago – an amendment James was involved in trying to defeat. 2014 is a big year for statewide and Congressional elections. And national groups say they’ve been careful in picking the right time to approach voters, since these campaigns are expensive and exhausting. So Sainz says they felt betrayed by James’ press release, and felt he was trying to force them into supporting an issue next year.

What Ian did was not only completely inappropriate, but it was not the way to build a spirit of trust or support or cooperation, and we consider it the very walking definition of unethical behavior.

James says he was just stating that his campaign will move toward next year’s ballot, with or without the support of national gay-rights groups. “There’s no strong-arming of groups from Washington DC to being involved in an Ohio campaign," James says. "This is about Ohio. This is about Ohioans and Ohioans are going to address this issue because we’re the ones that don’t have the rights. And frankly, I think it’s unfortunate that anybody would suggest that we just continue to wait until the quintessential quote-unquote ‘right time’ arrives.â€? But Sainz says this doesn’t mean that the gay rights community is divided – in fact, he says there is unanimity here. “Every organization is aligned on one side of the issue. It’s Ian who’s the outlier. He’s clearly out to represent whatever selfish interest that he may have, and that he is not acting in the best interest of gay and lesbian Ohioans.â€? James doesn’t have much of a response to the words directed at him personally, but deflects back to the campaign that he says is still looking to the 2014 ballot. “The reality is we’re going to keep pushing forward, we’re going to have a positive conversation, there’s no need for name-calling and we’re just going to keep on moving forward in a positive way to bring about marriage equality for all Ohioans," James says. The latest Quinnipiac poll in Ohio on same-sex marriage was in April, and it shows Ohioans are leaning toward it 48 percent to 44 percent, but just four months earlier 47 percent were opposed and 45 percent supported it.