S. Dakota not so sure about gay-marriage ban

November 04, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

BERESFORD, S.D. — This is an unlikely state to blaze a trail for gay rights.

South Dakota has the smallest percentage of gay and lesbian residents in the nation -- 10,000 adults, or less than 2% of the population. Conservative and religious values run deep; asked their political views, voters often respond, "I'm a Christian," as though that's explanation enough.

But South Dakota also has a live-and-let-live libertarian streak. Voters here could make history on Tuesday by rejecting a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage and invalidate all other "quasi-marital" arrangements, such as domestic partnerships and civil unions.

A poll released Friday by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader found a virtual deadlock; 47% of likely voters oppose the amendment, 46% support it. In this farm town of 2,000, only two of more than a dozen people interviewed said they intended to vote for the ban.

"I believe having gay sex is a sin. I'm a conservative Christian in many ways. But I'm voting no," said Amo Beal, 58, who runs a thrift shop. "I don't believe an amendment like that belongs in the constitution. I don't trust the government to mess with [relationships]."

A few doors down, at the bridal store, Jessica Ness, 31, offered a fervent plea for a ban on all abortions. But gay marriage? "I have no issue with that," Ness said. "Everybody in this country should have equal rights.... If churches don't want to sanction the relationships, fine, but the government shouldn't be using religion as a basis to say what's right and what's wrong."

Voters in seven other states will also decide Tuesday whether to ban same-sex marriage. The campaigns have been much harder-fought -- and the results less certain -- than ever before.

In the last eight years, 19 states have put constitutional bans on the ballot and all have been approved, usually overwhelmingly. The closest race was in Oregon in 2004, when 57% backed the amendment. California passed a ban in 2000 with 61% support. Across the South, anti-gay-marriage measures have easily drawn 75% support.

This year, amendments in South Carolina, Tennessee and Idaho are expected to pass easily. But in five other states, including South Dakota, enthusiasm for the bans has been surprisingly weak.

In Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin, the bans are expected to pass, but not by much; polls show the amendments drawing barely 50% support, with many voters still undecided. In Arizona, the mood has shifted more dramatically: Three recent polls all found support for the ban at or under 41%, suggesting the measure could fail.

The scandal involving the Rev. Ted Haggard, an influential evangelical based in Colorado Springs, could further weaken support for the bans, especially in Colorado. Haggard, who supports the marriage ban, admitted Friday he bought methamphetamine and received a massage from a gay prostitute. The prostitute alleges that the pastor regularly paid him for sex; Haggard denies that.

Some pundits said the scandal could prompt some conservative evangelical voters to stay home Tuesday in disgust or disillusionment. "This is the best thing gay-marriage supporters could have hoped for," said Ted Olsen, news director of Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine. On the other hand, as many as 40% of Colorado's ballots are cast before election day, in absentee or early voting, so the effect may be minimal.

Even before Haggard's actions became public, the religious right had been struggling to ignite a sense of urgency about gay marriage. The issue drove Republicans to the polls in 2004, when bans were on the ballot in 13 states, but this year it "doesn't have quite the same energy," said Bruce Merrill, a pollster at Arizona State University.

Gay-rights activists have also made inroads with moderates this year by refining their campaign tactics. They are making more emotional pitches for equality than in the past. And they warn that broad language invalidating all "quasi-marital" relationships could end up hurting straight unmarried couples as well as gays and lesbians.

Here in South Dakota, the campaign against the ban is appealing to the sense of community and Christian kindness that binds many rural towns. On radio spots, in newspaper ads and on bright-red yard signs, the campaign declares: "Good Neighbors Don't Discriminate."

A recent census analysis by the Williams Institute at UCLA found fewer than 1,000 same-sex couples in South Dakota -- fewer than in any other state. The Argus Leader, the state's biggest newspaper, opened an article about the movie "Brokeback Mountain" in the winter with this observation: "At least presently, the idea of finding two gay, male South Dakota ranchers is as foreign as the avian flu."

So voters here are not all that comfortable with the concept of same-sex unions. Many, however, are even less comfortable with an amendment declaring such relationships invalid.

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