ELKHART — Indiana state lawmakers will decide if the question over amending the state Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage goes to voters.
But the wrangling ahead of their decision during the 2014 legislative session isn’t limited to Indianapolis. The same-sex marriage debate is a hot-button topic all over, and here in Elkhart County, forces for and against are jockeying for position, bracing for battle and planning to do what they can to sway lawmakers.
Ray Laborde, pastor of McCoy Memorial Baptist Church in Elkhart, said he plans to encourage congregants to contact their representatives to Indianapolis, encourage them to support the amendment, House Joint Resolution 6. It’s a question of defending “God’s plan,” marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
“It’s upholding what marriage is, because marriage is being attacked,” said Laborde. “Marriage is being redefined.”
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Elkhart, meanwhile, just started hosting a phone bank to push in the other direction — rejection of HJR 6. Local volunteers plan to make phone calls to Indiana voters once a week, searching out other HJR 6 foes and encouraging them to voice their views to their lawmakers.
Marriage is more a spiritual concern that pertains to churches, not an issue of the state government, said Rob Van Ess, pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Elkhart. He opposes HJR 6, sees public sentiment shifting toward support of gay marriage and took part in the first phone-calling effort at the Unitarian church.
“I think freedom means freedom for everybody,” said Van Ess. “It’s a basic civil rights issue, in my mind.”
Per HJR 6, the Indiana Constitution would be amended to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, effectively prohibiting same-sex marriage. If lawmakers approve HJR 6 in the upcoming legislative session, the question would go on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot as a referendum question and Indiana voters would have final say.
State law already defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. HJR 6 proponents see codifying the definition in the Constitution as a way of making sure the law isn’t overturned or changed to allow same-sex marriage.
PUSHING AGAINST HJR 6
As it stands, the anti-HJR 6 efforts seem more organized — more centralized, anyway — than the pro-HJR 6 campaign, at least here in Elkhart County.
Freedom Indiana, a statewide group formed to defeat HJR 6, is assisting with the phone bank campaign in Elkhart and is also aiding efforts in South Bend. Two full-time Freedom Indiana staffers are assisting with the Elkhart and South Bend efforts, said Peter Hanscom, deputy campaign manager for the group, and there are local campaigns in 25 to 30 Indiana locales, including Fort Wayne and Lake County.
Amy DeBeck, reverend of the Unitarian church, learned of Freedom Indiana’s plans to launch local efforts in South Bend and volunteered to help create a campaign center in Elkhart. The Constitution “is supposed to uphold peoples’ rights, not take rights away,” she said.
Elkhart County, at least, sways conservative, but HJR 6 foes like DeBeck and Hanscom don’t see the same-sex marriage question as splitting along conservative-liberal lines. “We wouldn’t be there if we didn’t think there was a chance to change minds there,” Hanscom, who’s based in Indianapolis, said by phone.
That said, most state lawmakers serving Elkhart County have voiced support at one time or another for HJR 6, including Reps. Tim Neese, Wes Culver and Tim Wesco and Sen. Joe Zakas, all Republicans. And DeBeck, who helped with the first phone bank effort here, said calls made locally aren’t limited to Elkhart County voters. Rather, the aim is to reach voters in districts where Indiana lawmakers are on the fence or haven’t publicly taken a stance on the matter.
LETTING THEM ‘DO THEIR OWN THING’
Michael Neal, director of public policy for the Indiana Pastors Alliance, traveled to Elkhart last October with a contingent pushing for passage of HJR 6, part of a tour of several cities across Indiana. Around 20 local business and religious leaders and others took part in the meeting.
Reps from the Indiana Family Institute in Indianapolis and the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council were also on hand. But Neal said locals are being left to lead their own campaigns.
“We’re letting them do their own thing,” he said. “They’re doing what they do in their communities to rally people.”
Laborde described the McCoy Memorial Baptist Church effort as informal — pleas for church members “to make their voice known.”
Mike Fisher, pastor of Grace Bible Church in Elkhart, is a strong HJR 6 backer and follows the lead of Eric Miller, an outspoken conservative and founder of Advance America, a self-described “pro-family, pro-church” group based in Indianapolis. “If we allow unmarried couples living together and gay ‘married’ couples to be equal with God-ordained, heterosexual married couples, we will cease to be a moral society,” he said in an email.
Fisher, while indicating plans to be involved in pro-HJR 6 efforts, was sketchy about specifics. “I am certain when the time comes and (Indiana legislators) are voting on it, we will be very active on it,” he said.
Indeed, Laborde contrasted the relatively high profile, centralized efforts of Freedom Indiana, based in Indianapolis, with the lower-key HJR 6 advocates. That said, the HJR 6 critics may be outspoken, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into success.
The anti-HJR 6 advocates “have a very loud lobby, a lot of clout,” Laborde said. “But I don’t think they represent anywhere near the majority.”
Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack.