John Henning, executive director of Love Honor Cherish, asks Leslie Scofield… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
A measure to reinstate marriage rights for gays and lesbians on next year's ballot has stirred anxiety and doubts among some gay rights activists.
The proposed measure, sponsored by a group called Love Honor Cherish, would overturn Proposition 8, last year's initiative that reinstated a ban on same-sex marriage. The group is mounting a volunteer signature-gathering effort using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking tools.
"We want our rights back," said John Henning, a lawyer who is executive director of the group. "This is not about farm price supports. This is about whether I can be married or not."
Other gay rights supporters sympathize but worry that the group has neither the money nor the voters to win next year.
Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel with Lambda Legal, said Lambda would do everything it could to restore marriage rights for gays and lesbians. But she said a failed effort could further polarize voters and hurt and anger supporters of same-sex marriage.
Lambda Legal and other long-established gay rights groups are aiming for the 2012 ballot instead.
"We can predict with some reasonable confidence that we will be in position to win in 2012," Pizer said.
Five states permit same-sex marriage as a result of court rulings or legislative actions. No state has passed an initiative to extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians.
Andy Pugno, a lawyer for the campaign that passed Proposition 8, said it was "virtually impossible" in California to qualify an initiative for the ballot through volunteer efforts alone.
"There is no evidence that Californians have changed their minds since voting on this last year," Pugno said.
Fifty-one percent of California voters said they favored marriage rights for gay couples, according to a Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll conducted a month ago, but almost three in five said they did not want to revisit the issue in 2010, just one election cycle after it last hit the ballot.
The split among the gay rights groups over a California vote is similar to the divide over when to press a marriage challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Many gay rights lawyers opposed the filing of a federal lawsuit earlier this year to overturn Proposition 8, which was passed by 52.3% of voters. These lawyers worry that a loss at the U.S. Supreme Court could set back the marriage movement by years.
Despite their views, Chad Griffin, a Los Angeles-based political strategist, launched the federal lawsuit and hired legal giants Theodore B. Olson and David Boies to take the case. The suit is expected to go to trial next year in federal court in San Francisco.
Griffin questions whether a minority's constitutional rights should be determined by a majority. He noted that a 1968 Gallup poll found that 73% of Americans "disapproved" of interracial marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving vs. Virginia, overturned a ban on interracial marriage the year before.
"Our fundamental constitutional rights should not be subject to a popularity contest and to who has the most money and the best ads," Griffin said.
At least $1 million may be needed to qualify the marriage measure for the ballot and 60 times that amount to win a campaign, he said. Love Honor Cherish has less than $200,000 in the bank for signature gathering, Henning said.
"If one is making the decision to put this up for yet another vote of the people -- which I no longer buy into -- you better have the committed resources to pass it," Griffin said.
Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, the largest statewide gay rights group, said he would not sign a petition to put the marriage question on next year's ballot.
"But I have told our staff and our members to make their own decisions," he added. "That is what democracy is all about."
Kors said his group also wanted to target next year's ballot, "but our research made it clear it was not feasible." He said the 2012 presidential vote would draw younger voters, who tend to support marriage rights.
An analysis based on polling and demographics by 30 groups found a four-point advantage in 2012 over next year, Kors said. "We can't afford not to go with the most favorable electorate we could," he said.
The passage of a same-sex marriage ban in Maine earlier this month also has figured into some calculations.
Supporters of same-sex marriage in Maine raised more than twice as much money as opponents, Kors said. A marriage initiative in California next year would require $50 million just to have a "fighting chance," he said.
Losing in 2010 would have consequences for any later ballot measure and possibly even the pending federal lawsuit, Kors said. Voters do not like repeat initiatives, and voting tends to harden views, he said.
If the federal lawsuit wins at trial, fundraising for a ballot measure would be more difficult, Kors said.
He also said a marriage initiative would encourage opponents of marriage rights to raise as much money as possible to send a message to the appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately may decide the case.
Henning said he found all this strategizing "a little bit disturbing." He said he was confident the money could be raised to pass a new initiative next year.
"The issue is whether we are going to be equal or not," he said. The long-established gay rights groups "think that because they have been around for a while, they get to make all the decisions about everything."