Constitutional Convention, ’Best Avenue’ to Revoking Marriage, Unlikely in CT

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday October 21, 2008

For some, the possibility of a constitutional convention in Connecticut comes pre-loaded with associations: the divisive battle to revoke marriage from gay and lesbian families now raging in California, and the huge sums of money flowing in from out of state to finance the struggle, is a prime, and negative, example.

And indeed, there are those for whom the idea of two men or two women committing themselves to one another in a loving and life-long union drives a wish to see a constitutional convention take place in the third state in the Union to grant equal marriage rights to all its families, regardless of the genders of those involved: locally, The Family Institute of Connecticut sees such a convention as its "best avenue" to revoke marriage equality in that state, according to the group's executive director, Peter Wolfgang, reported an Oct. 21 article in the Yale Daily News.

Nationally, larger organizations are taking an interest as well: the Catholic church, which has seen its laity contribute over a million dollars to the effort in Calif. to rescind marriage equality, is pushing for voter approval of a constitutional convention in Conn., in hopes that this will lead to a voter-approved amendment to the state's constitution similar to amendments in 27 other states that have written anti-gay discrimination into bedrock law.

As reported at Republican in an Oct. 21 story, Conn.'s Catholic bishops are encouraging members of the church to vote in favor of the convention, with the idea of eventually stripping gay and lesbian families in Conn. of the right to marry.

The article quoted Michael Culhane, the Connecticut Catholic Conference's executive director, as saying, "There is no doubt the bishops are united in their support for a 'yes' vote on the constitutional convention question."

But for some, the idea of a constitutional convention means a chance to address a host of issues, not simply an opportunity for anti-gay groups to assail gay and lesbian families with new legal attacks.

The question comes before Conn. voters every 20 years: "Shall there be a constitutional convention to amend or revise the constitution of the state?"

This year the question will appear on the ballot once again, but this is not like any other year in recent memory: earlier this month, Conn. became America's third state, after Massachusetts (2004) and California (May of this year) to extend full-fledged marriage equality to gay and lesbian families.

Anti-gay organizations have seized on the timing of the question's return to call for a constitutional convention and a ballot initiative that will strip marriage rights from citizens of that state.

But there's more to it than that, insist pro-convention supporters with wider agendas, according to the Yale Daily News article.

Former Conn. state legislator John Woodcock III serves as the Vice Chairman of The Constitution Convention Campaign, a coalition that wishes to see voters approve such a convention.

Once called into session, such a convention could (but would not be mandated to) discuss adding language to the Conn. constitution that would enable citizens there to petition for, and place onto the ballot, further amendments.

Looking past the marriage equality question, Woodcock sees the possibilities for unlimited citizen participation in the sculpting of state law.

Woodcock pointed to what he characterized as a stagnant state legislature as proof for the need of a shakeup in the way the state's business is done.

The article quoted Woodcock as saying, "In our state 95 percent of incumbents win re-election, over one-third of races are uncontested, and lobbyist influence has grown to $42 million annually."

Added Woodcock, "The legislature is too entrenched and is dominated by special interests."

Said Woodcock, "I am a Democrat, a progressive one at that, and I have a record to prove it,

"But I think we, as citizens, should have the ability to change our laws without going through the broken legislature."

Added Woodcock, "This convention is issue-neutral and can be used to tackle issues such as a three-strikes law, eminent domain reform and a tax overhaul."

But the unbounded nature of such a convention worries others. The article quoted the Campaign Manager of CT Vote NO!, Peggy Shorey, who said, "Convention delegates can propose anything, without limits."

And though voters might be able to weight in about the initiatives that end up on the ballot, that's the thin end of a long and uncertain wedge; continued Shorey, "Voters have no say in what is proposed at the convention."

Shorey predicted that delegates at such a convention would "do what's in their best interest, not the public interest."

For those worried about a vitriolic, divisive campaign to ban marriage equality should such a convention be called, Massachusetts since 2004 and California at the present moment present striking examples; as quoted at Republican, James Finley, who serves the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said, "Based on other states' experience, permitting citizens initiatives and referenda often empowers monied interests with extreme views."

Added Finley, "Such initiative and referenda are costly and usurp the authority of the governor and the General Assembly."

In a string of highly charged, nationally covered attempts to get a ballot initiative before voters that would constitutionally ban marriage, Mass. based anti-gay groups and their national supporters created a national spectacle until, at last, a last-minute shift by legislators unwilling to put rights up to a vote killed the most recent amendment attempt last year.

An even louder fight is ongoing in Calif., where anti-gay organizations have claimed that kindergartners will be forced to learn about gay families in school unless marriage equality is struck down by voters. The basis of that claim is a state law that requires students to learn about marriage and committed relationships before graduating high school, as part of their comprehensive sex education.

However, parents currently have the right to opt their children out of all such classes, and even if marriage equality were to be rescinded in that state, that would be no guarantee that lessons about committed relationships other than marriage as defined as one man and one woman would be scrubbed from school curricula.

Meantime, a host of other aspects swirling around the question have raised troubling, even ugly, speculation and supposition: will blacks flooding the polls to vote for Obama also vote against marriage equality? Is a white anti-gay elite hoping to manipulate black and Latino voters? Are churches crossing a line by insisting that their parishioners vote against marriage equality? Are pro-marriage equality churches trying to defend individual and family rights seen as somehow less Christian for those efforts by their fundamentalist counterparts? Would the revocation of marriage rights in such a populous state prompt a fresh wave of anti-gay legislation across America? What do the huge sums of money, much of it sent into Calif. by Catholics and Mormons, and needed to buy airtime for TV ads, say about the state of our democracy and the power of the people to govern themselves via the vote?

For those who support other contentious social issues, such as reproductive rights, privacy, and other hot button topics, the idea of voters rewriting the constitution at the ballot box may seem frightening, and not a little reckless.

As with the California battle on marriage equality, money and politics seem tightly entwined: the article noted that the newspaper The Hartford Courant had determined that those against the convention have raised a startling amout of money as compared to those looking to convince voters to approve a constitutional convention: the gap, according to the Hartford Courant, is 83 to 1.

The size of the funding gap was not lost on Woodcock, who said, "When you are being out-spent 83 to 1, reality sets in."

Added Woodcock, "This whole campaign is about spreading our message to voters--we have only raised $12,000 and the other side has millions of dollars to use to blanket TV with ads.

"It will be an uphill battle for us."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.