Voters may get 'bonus' vote on gay marriage issue

Georgia voters not only are likely to get a second shot at banning gay marriage this fall, they may have an opportunity to weigh in on civil unions involving homosexuals as a bonus.

A constitutional amendment approved two years ago by 76 percent of the voters dealt with both issues.

It recognized marriage in Georgia as only "the union of man and woman'' and declared that Georgia would not recognize any form of same-sex union entered into in another state or extend "the benefits of marriage'' to anyone involved in such a relationship.

However, all voters saw on the ballot when they went to the polls in November 2004 was the part addressing the definition of marriage.

The amendment's opponents went to court even before the vote, citing a provision in the Georgia Constitution prohibiting constitutional changes from dealing with more than one subject.

This month, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance Russell agreed with that reasoning and overturned the amendment as unconstitutional.

That prompted an outcry from Republicans and not a few moderate Democrats.

GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue gave the state Supreme Court a deadline of Aug. 7 to rule on the state's appeal. Otherwise, he said he would call the General Assembly into a special session beginning Aug. 9 to redraft the amendment and place it on the ballot again this November.

To pass legal muster, Republican legislative leaders are considering putting at least two constitutional amendments before the voters this time, one dealing with gay marriage and the other with same-sex civil unions.

"Our first move is to wait to see what the Supreme Court does,'' said Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons. "If they don't rule on it, I suppose we'd break them out.''

Across the country, same-sex civil unions have gained somewhat more acceptance than gay marriage. Many businesses, including some in Georgia, provide domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples.

With that trend in mind, gay rights advocates in Georgia may decide to concentrate their campaign this fall against a ban on civil unions if it lands on the ballot as a constitutional amendment separate from the gay marriage measure.

But Williams said Georgia voters aren't likely to look favorably on civil unions, either.

"It might not be by the same percentage, but I think it would pass,'' he said.

Whether the issue of same-sex relationships resurfaces this fall as one or more ballot questions, the presence of an issue considered vital to religious conservatives would likely give Republicans a boost in a key election year.

Perdue, Georgia's first GOP governor since Reconstruction, is seeking a second term, and Republicans are defending majorities in both houses of the legislature.

Indeed, when the GOP won control of the House two years ago and built upon its majority in the Senate, the gay marriage amendment received a share of the credit.

Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, a former House Judiciary Committee chairman who is not running for re-election, said what's happening now is a fulfillment of the prediction he made when he argued against the gay marriage measure two years ago.

"I went to the well in 2004 and said this is so poorly drafted, it was either done by an idiot or drafted so it will fail and Republicans will get a second bite at the apple,'' he said.

"All of this that has gone on so far has been predictable.''

But Williams dismissed the charge as "ridiculous.'' He said there's no way Republicans could have or would have planned to have the amendment overturned.

"We wouldn't waste the public's time,'' he said. "If it hadn't been for a very liberal judge, we wouldn't be voting on it again anyway.''

The state Supreme Court could put a quick end to the controversy by overturning the lower-court decision. It would take a bit longer to play out if the high court doesn't act or upholds the earlier ruling and lawmakers put the issue back before the voters in November.

But Bordeaux said there won't be a final resolution in either case. He said it's bound to end up in federal court because banning domestic partner benefits in Georgia raises the constitutional question of equal treatment under the law.

"Say 'Adam and Steve' are Delta employees in Vermont,'' said Bordeaux, referring to a state where civil unions are legal. "They get transferred down here. ... They suddenly lose those benefits because they come to Georgia? That doesn't seem fair.''