As Supreme Court weighs same-sex marriage, Georgians in 2004 battle look forward

If Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality had it to do over again, he wouldn’t talk about equal justice in trying to dissuade Georgians from amending the state Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. He’d talk about love.

“We didn’t begin to change people’s minds (with) the big politics; it’s about the simple message of wanting to take care of the person you love,” said Graham, who in 2004 lobbied against the amendment on behalf of gay and lesbians. “Once we stopped being afraid to talk about that fact … that’s when the public attitudes about this started to change.”

As the U.S. Supreme Court meets today to hear the second challenge this week to restrictions on same-sex marriage, all indications are that most Georgians continue to support such limits. Yet those who championed the state’s constitutional ban, along with those who fought it, discern a shift in the public mood in the nine years since 76 percent of Georgians approved the measure.

“This is not an easy issue because you are dealing with real, live human beings,” said Tanya Ditty, head of Georgia Concerned Women for America.

Ditty is skeptical that national opinion has swung as far as polls suggest, but doesn’t doubt that younger Americans are more likely to support same-sex marriage. “The media has done a very good job normalizing the lifestyle through TV, through video, through music,” she said. “It surrounds them.”

On the national level, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found support for gay marriage has risen from 37 percent in 2003 to 58 percent today. Opposition has declined from 55 percent to 36 percent.

In Georgia, the picture is considerably different. A poll conducted in May 2012 found that nearly 60 percent of Georgians would not vote to reverse the constitutional ban on gay marriage. That poll was conducted by Landmark Communications/Rosetta Stone for Channel 2 Action News.

Dawn Baunach, a Georgia State University associate professor of sociology, said Georgia is in line with most Southern states in its views on the issue.

“Part of the reason is the people who are most against same-sex marriage are people who are older, who are evangelical … or are staunchly Republican and more socially conservative,” she said. “That’s what we have a lot of in the South.”

Ditty, for one, said her personal views remain firm despite a softening in the wider culture. “You don’t have to change your values and core beliefs simply because it’s an unpopular view,” she said.

The chief source of her opposition is a belief that traditional marriage creates the best environment for children. Further, she believes gay marriage is a threat to religious liberty and could cause churches which oppose it to lose their tax exempt status.

But Jamie Ensley, head of the state’s Log Cabin Republicans, said those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds are misguided. “You’ve got to remember, for hundreds of years the Bible was used to defend segregation and slavery,” he said. “It was wrong to use the Bible against African Americans and it’s wrong to use the Bible against gays and lesbians.”

In Georgia, the 2004 battle was especially divisive for the state’s Democratic Party, as members weighed conservative Biblical beliefs against arguments that the amendment was a form of discrimination.

Rep. Carl Von Epps, D-La Grange, cast a crucial vote in favor of the measure. Reached at the Capitol this week, Epps declined to explicitly state his current position, but said he favors “equal rights for all citizens.”

As for the degree to which public opinion has changed in Georgia, Epps said that’s difficult to gauge — but that little surprises him these days. “There was a time I never thought Sunday (alcohol) sales would be allowed in Georgia,” he said.

Former Republican State Sen. Mike Crotts, who sponsored the bill that set up the constitutional referendum, remains opposed to same-sex marriage. “From my point of view, (growing support) shows the moral decay of what is happening in our country,” he said.

But he also stressed that Georgians can reverse the ban if they choose to. “When I crafted that bill, I left it open that the bill could be changed if the people wanted to change it by a new referendum,” he said.

Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, who led the fight against the amendment in 2004, sees steady incremental change.

“There are three lesbians in the General Assembly now — anytime a person comes out, there is hope. Anytime a gay person is elected, there is hope. Anytime a black church in the state of Georgia has decided it accepts gay people in its congregation, there’s hope,” she said.

Similarly, Graham, who plans to wed his partner of 25 years in coming months, said that on this issue, the political is personal.

“As people begin to know they have a brother or a sister or a child or a coworker or a neighbor who is openly gay, as people get to know the boring reality of our lives as gay and lesbian people, they realize we don’t pose a threat to society,” he said.

In 2004, Sadie Fields was the head of the Christian Coalition of Georgia and arguably the face of the 2004 amendment. She maintains her view that same-sex marriage should not be legalized.

But in the almost decade since the fight she’s forged a relationship with her daughter Tess Fields, a lesbian who denounced her mother’s views in a 2004 letter to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Even as society’s standards change, God’s standards remain unchanged,” Sadie Fields said this week. “But there is a way for two people to reach out to each other who are diametrically on opposite sides of an issue and find a common bond, especially a mother and daughter.”

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