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Elkhart area advocates for the gay community say they can't let up in efforts to scrap HJR-3

HJR 3 will likely re-emerge for debate in 2015 or 2016, and the advocates for same-sex marriage say they need to keep their efforts up until then.



Posted on Feb. 23, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.

ELKHART — It’s not time to celebrate.

No way near.

The removal of the so-called second sentence from House Joint Resolution 3 earlier in the legislative session this year reduced the scope of the measure meant to prohibit same-sex marriage. But for gay rights activists in and around Elkhart County, the whole thing needs to be scrapped.

“To me, that was a short-term victory,” said Lynn Young, a Walkerton woman whose same-sex marriage a year-and-a-half ago in Massachusetts isn’t recognized here in Indiana. "The whole thing needs to go."

Chad Crabtree, a gay man from Elkhart who actively lobbied against HJR-3, goes further. Not only should HJR-3 be scrapped, but same-sex couples deserve the right to marry, just like heterosexual couples.

“We won the battle, but the war is not over,” he said. "The victory will be when there's marriage equality in all 50 states of this country that I live in."

Only days after state lawmakers put the HJR-3 issue to rest, at least for now, foes of the measure here in the Elkhart County area say they can't let up in efforts to defend the rights of the gay community. HJR-3 — which would amend the Indiana Constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, precluding same-sex marriage — will likely come up again before state lawmakers in 2015 or 2016.

If the officials give it the green light, it would make it to the 2016 general election ballot for final consideration by voters.

In the meantime, gay advocates need to create a face for the community, keeping up some of the efforts that preceded the House and Senate debate on HJR-3 earlier this year. They need to do what they can to change minds ahead of another likely debate on the issue.

"We can actively engage in conversations with our neighbors, people who feel different than we do," said Young, a member of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Elkhart.

It's easier to back a measure like HJR-3, she contends, when the targeted population is a faceless group. It's another thing altogether when those who would be impacted by HJR-3 emerge as individuals with personal stories.

"We're not from Mars. We're your neighbor, family member, co-worker," said Crabtree, an admissions counselor at Indiana University South Bend.

A prior version of HJR-3 was initially approved by lawmakers in 2011. Had it passed again this year, unchanged, the measure would have appeared on the election ballot this coming November for final consideration by voters. The Indiana House, though, removed the second sentence of the measure, which would have prohibited civil unions, throwing a monkey wrench in the process.

The House and Senate ended up approving the new version. But now, because it is different from the 2011 proposal, it must face another round of consideration by state leaders before it can potentially be put to voters in 2016, per the formal constitutional amendment process.

'IN POCKETS AND HIDDEN'

An Indianapolis-based group, Freedom Indiana, spearheaded the anti-HJR-3 campaign. In the House and Senate committee debates there in the state capital, advocates for the gay community made their presence known loud and clear.

Here around Elkhart County, by contrast, while there is a gay community, it's comparatively small, arguably, and scattered.

"I've never really gotten a strong sense of one," said Rob Van Ess, the pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ here in Elkhart and a gay man. Gay locals are generally "very quiet with others because this is a conservative area."

Some worry that being too vocal, too upfront can put their jobs in jeopardy and make their children subject to unwanted attention.

"I think we're here in pockets and hidden, to some extent," said Crabtree.

Still, the passion on the matter within the community here is just as strong, if not as evident.

Van Ess and Crabtree both took part locally in phone banking efforts sponsored by Freedom Indiana against HJR-3.

Crabtree also called his representatives to Indianapolis, Rep. Tim Neese and Sen. Joe Zakas, Republicans who both ended up backing HJR-3. Neese called back, explained his position, but Zakas, Crabtree noted ruefully, did not. Crabtree has also touched base with the three GOPers running for the post now held by Neese, who won't be seeking re-election.

"I haven't been sitting on the sidelines because it personally affects me," said Crabtree. Independent of his activism on HJR-3, Crabtree is running as a Democrat this year for the Osolo Township trustee position, now held by Republican Benny Russo.

The campaigning and attention the HJR-3 issue received made a dent in negative perceptions of the gay community, however marginally, Crabtree, Van Ess and Young suspect. More broadly, negative attitudes toward the community seem to be shifting, particularly among younger people.

The narrower votes on HJR-3 this year, too, suggest a shift. In 2011, the predecessor legislation, House Joint Resolution 6, passed in the House in a 70-26 vote compared to the 57-40 backing HJR-3 got this year. HJR 6 passed in the Senate in a 40-10 vote three years ago while HJR-3 passed this year by a 32-17 margin.

"I think the support is eroding as each day passes," said Van Ess, who was married to another man in a civil ceremony.

'I WOULD LIKE TO GET MARRIED'

Still, existing Indiana law prohibits same-sex marriage, regardless of HJR-3. HJR-3 is seen by backers as a means to reinforce the prohibition.

And whatever inroads on perceptions toward the gay community, Young doesn't see a clear path toward marriage equality here in Indiana, change permitting recognition of her Massachusetts marriage.

Stopping HJR-3 is one thing, allowing same-sex marriage in Indiana is "a whole other conversation," she said. "It would be a much harder sell to get to full same-sex marriage."

Nonetheless, that doesn't stop Crabtree and others from dreaming. "I would like to get married and have a family and settle down in the city of Elkhart," said Crabtree.

Follow Elkhart Truth reporter Tim Vandenack @tvandenack.



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