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La. voting on gay marriage ban

Opponents fear amendment plan's scope is broad

NEW ORLEANS -- Two weekends ago, this city welcomed thousands of gay revelers from around the country to the annual Southern Decadence festival, a gay Mardi Gras complete with a risqu and satirical parade in costume through the French Quarter.

But today, the South's most freewheeling city is likely to vote along with the rest of Louisiana to ban same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships under the state constitution. After Missouri, which approved a similar ban last month, Louisiana is the second state to hold a referendum on the issue since the decision in Massachusetts by the Supreme Judicial Court legalizing same-sex marriage.

''It probably will pass," said Ed Renwick, director of the Institute of Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans. ''There's a lot of interest in it, so it will probably drive up turnout."

Proponents of the ban have raised significantly more money than gay rights supporters and have cobbled together an unusual coalition that joins Republicans with white Protestant, African-American, and Catholic churches which together are expected to deliver the vote in favor of the constitutional amendment.

No statewide polls have been taken since early March, when 67 percent of registered voters surveyed said they supported a ban on gay marriages, and 27 percent said they were opposed. Buster McKenzie, co-owner of Southern Media and Opinion Research, a polling firm in Baton Rouge that conducted the poll, said recent surveys done for political candidates produced similar results. Support is strongest in the conservative north and weakest in the New Orleans area, but the March survey showed the ban passing in every region of the state.

New Orleans has hosted the Southern Decadence festival since 1972, and most residents seem to take a tolerant attitude toward gays. New Orleans is heavily Catholic, however, and local black clergymen have been among leading opponents to gay marriage in the city, where two-thirds of the population is African-American.

Top city officials, including Mayor C. Ray Nagin, an African-American whose welcome letter posted on the Decadence website expresses the city's ''heartfelt gratitude" for the festival being in New Orleans, have avoided taking a public position on the referendum. The city is the largest in a conservative state that has no openly gay elected officials, according to the Victory Fund and Leadership Institute in Washington, which supports gay and lesbian candidates.

Like Missouri and the 11 states expected to vote on same-sex marriage bans Nov. 2, the Louisiana amendment defines marriage as the ''union of one man and one woman" and prohibits the state's courts from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

But unlike proposed bans in some states, Louisiana's goes further and stops the state from recognizing any legal status that is ''substantially similar" to marriage or confers the ''legal incidents thereof."

Opponents of the amendment worry that wording could invalidate domestic partner benefits -- in New Orleans, for instance -- and private contracts concerning property or the right to make medical decisions.

Steve Scalise, a Republican legislator from the New Orleans suburbs whose legislation mandated the referendum, said the amendment would not ''affect private relationships between individuals or businesses. It doesn't affect private contracts at all."

A study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a nonpartisan group, reached no conclusion on the breadth of the amendment's effects, saying only that ''legal analysts are split on the potential impact of the amendment on private contracts."

Louisiana's Catholic bishops have urged the state's 1.5 million Catholics -- a third of the population -- to support the measure. The senior bishop of the largest African-American church in New Orleans, the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, has been lobbying for a federal constitutional amendment in Washington.

Although Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat and Catholic, reached out to gay voters when she ran for office last year, she recently called marriage ''a sacrament between a man and a woman" and said she would vote for the ban.

US Representative David Vitter, a Republican from the New Orleans suburbs who is the leading candidate to replace retiring Senator John Breaux, a Democrat, also supports it. US Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, has not taken a stand on the state amendment but opposes a federal amendment.

Major newspapers in the state have opposed the ban: the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Advocate in Baton Rouge, the Shreveport Times, and the Alexandria Town Talk. While the referendum has generated spirited debate in letters to the editor, little advertising has been broadcast.

The Rev. Gene Mills, executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum, said his group is close to raising $250,000 to push for the ban. The forum has received some help from the Family Research Council, a conservative group in Washington headed by former Louisiana legislator Tony Perkins, in organizing voter registration drives in churches and distributing kits about ''voting your values." Mills and his group have bought advertising on 30 billboards around the state and some radio stations, but most of their campaign efforts have been directed at clergy, teachers, and public officials.

Tim Hornback, executive director of the Forum for Equality, said gay rights supporters have not donated much money to fight the proposed ban, but they did give generously to an unsuccessful legal battle to keep the amendment off the ballot. On Sept. 2, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to block the vote.

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