News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 13, 2014

Hoosiers divided over same-sex marriage ban speak out in turn at the Statehouse

Maureen Hayden
CNHI

INDIANAPOLIS — Carolyn Rhoton and the Rev. Donald McCord spent more than four hours sitting on hard benches outside the Indiana House of Representatives chamber on Monday, having started the morning with conflicting prayers.

Rhoton, a retired nurse from Lebanon, said she prayed for legislators to have the wisdom to push forward on a ban on same-sex marriage.

“I believe it’s what God wants,” Rhoton said.

Ultimately, approval of the measure would put it to voters on the November ballot.  

McCord, a retired pastor in Indianapolis, said his prayer was for those same lawmakers to have the wisdom to kill the resolution and stop an increasingly divisive fight in Indiana. “We ought not to be passing legislation on how other people ought to live their lives,” he said.

Neither of their prayers was answered.

Having heard hours of emotional testimony, the House Judiciary Committee did the unexpected when it failed to vote to send the amendment to the state constitution on to the full House.

It was the first hearing on the contentious matter this session, and committee Chairman Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said members wanted more time to reflect on the testimony.

What they heard on Monday was divided opinion from legal experts, faith leaders and average citizens about the amendment that would ban both same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Jim Bopp, a prominent conservative lawyer from Terre Haute and former member of the Republican National Committee, spoke in favor and predicted the amendment would hold up in court.

Peter Rusthoven, a prominent conservative lawyer from Indianapolis and former adviser to President Ronald Reagan, opposed the amendment and a companion bill that seeks to explain the amendment’s intent. He predicted legal challenges would keep litigators busy for years to come. He suggested renaming the measure as the “Full Employment For Lawyers Act,” eliciting laughter from the crowds inside and outside the House chamber.

A line of pastors pulled out passages of Scripture for and against the bill.

The Rev. Ron Johnson, head of the Indiana Pastor Alliance, said failing to pass the amendment would leave the state open to “sexual anarchy.”

By contrast, Christian Theological Seminary President Matthew Myer Boulton said the amendment is unholy in its intolerance of gays.

The amendment has already caused convulsions among Republicans who control both legislative chambers in Indiana. It sailed through two years ago, in the first of a three-step process needed to amend the state’s constitution. It was then known as House Joint Resolution 6.

But it hit a snag when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take up the issue of same-sex marriage. The measure was held over until this year, after the court struck down a federal ban on same-sex marriage last year, a ruling that allowed states to make their own decisions about defining marriage.

In Indiana, the issue has been made murkier by a second sentence tagged onto the original language, which forbids the state from recognizing anything “similar” to same-sex marriage.

Debate on the amendment, now known as House Joint Resolution 3, no longer follows party lines. Its strongest opponents include some Republicans and some of their traditional allies in the corporate world.

Engine maker Cummins Inc. and the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly have come out staunchly against the amendment. Officials from both companies argued again Monday that even the threat of an amendment is hurting their recruitment of young professionals who put a premium on diversity.

Jeremy Wentzel gave voice to that narrative Monday. A former student body president of the private Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Wentzel described himself as a “proud, conservative Republican” who is gay.

As a high school senior in rural Brown County, Wentzel said he competed for a college scholarship that required him to say whether he’d stay in the state. His response was that he loved Indiana and dreamed of one day running for Congress in the district that includes his hometown.

His answer is different now.

“Unfortunately, things aren’t as welcoming as I had hoped for,” he said. “… I can be a young conservative anywhere. But when it comes to being a young gay conservative – with a strong family and being married – that means I can’t be a Hoosier right now.”