Originally created 04/01/04

Gay marriage amendment OK'd



ATLANTA - House lawmakers closed one of the thorniest chapters in the Legislature's history Wednesday, voting overwhelmingly to pass an amendment banning gay marriages in the Georgia Constitution.

The vote on the amendment was 122-52. Supporters needed 120 votes, which is two-thirds of the Democrat-controlled chamber.

Because the Republican-led Senate already approved the resolution in February, voters will make the final decision on whether to endorse the amendment during the Nov. 2 elections.

Supporters of the marriage ban celebrated Wednesday.

"I think it was always the will of the majority of the chamber," said Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta.

"We're still a very conservative state, and it's important to people that we protect (marriage) constitutionally."

Opponents of the ban, watching lawmakers on televisions in the Capitol halls, angrily denounced the Legislature's decision.

"I have a 26-year-old gay son, and he has been discriminated against enough," said Nita DeNicola, a retired history teacher from Sandy Springs. "I do not think that it is a good idea to put down in the Georgia Constitution that Georgia is this cruel. It is inhumane."

Gay marriage is already illegal under Georgia law. But some lawmakers feared a court might overturn the statute unless a ban is placed in the state constitution, the legal guideline used by judges in making their decisions.

Gay-rights supporters argued that gay couples deserve the same legal protections given to married straight couples, including hospital visitation, shared health insurance, joint adoption and inheritance rights.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in November that same-sex couples have the right to marriage under the Massachusetts Constitution. Though Massachusetts lawmakers have taken the first steps toward reversing the court's decision, gay marriages are set to begin in the state May 17.

The Democrat-controlled House has been painfully divided this year by the marriage ban: Republicans and conservative Democrats have fought to pass it, and black and urban white Democrats banded together to block the resolution.

On Wednesday, the division was still apparent.

"I don't think it ought to be in the Constitution," said Rep. Louise McBee, D-Athens, who voted against the amendment. "It's my understanding that the Constitution is a document that is supposed to protect people's freedom."

The road to victory was bumpy for those supporting the ban.

The amendment failed on its first time out, falling three votes short of passing the House on Feb. 26. On March 1, the majority of the chamber moved to reconsider the amendment in a second vote. That sent the resolution back to the House Rules Committee, which schedules legislation for a vote before the entire House.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, made a rare appearance before the Rules Committee, asking Chairman Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, to let the resolution out for a vote.

The 2000 U.S. Census showed there are more than 19,000 same-sex couple households in Georgia.

Georgia Equality, the state's largest gay-advocacy group, tried to convince lawmakers that Section B of the amendment would hurt businesses in Georgia because it would limit the state from offering domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples. Corporations such as Delta Air Lines, The Coca-Cola Co., UPS and BellSouth are among the employers offering such benefits as shared health plans for gay employees and their partners.