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Ballot initiative on same-sex marriage fuels passionate campaigns in Merced

Merced residents and gay rights activists Eileen Vidales, left, and Leslie Johnston post a "No on Proposition 8" sign at the intersection of McKee Road and East South Bear Creek Drive on Tuesday morning. The November ballot measure seeks to eliminate marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Merced residents and gay rights activists Eileen Vidales, left, and Leslie Johnston post a "No on Proposition 8" sign at the intersection of McKee Road and East South Bear Creek Drive on Tuesday morning. The November ballot measure seeks to eliminate marriage rights for same-sex couples. Merced Sun-Star photo by George MacDonald

"Until death do us part." Five simple little words, but the fight over whether same-sex couples should be able to say them is neither simple or little.

On Nov. 4, state voters will go to the polls to vote on Proposition 8, an initiative that could determine the fate of same-sex marriage in California.

Prop. 8 would amend the state's constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry, defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Gay couples in the state have been able to marry since June, after a decision by the California Supreme Court lifted the ban on gay marriage. Since then, about 20 gay couples in Merced County have received marriage licenses, according to Chief Deputy County Clerk Stacey Cotter.

If voters like Atwater resident Robert Olzack have their way, however, marriage in California will go back to being an institution for heterosexual couples only. "Marriage, I believe, is ordained by God. It's something that is a sacred union between a man and a woman," Olzack said.

For Merced resident Eileen Vidales, however, the passage of Prop. 8 would be a huge blow against equal rights for all people, not just same-sex couples. "The elements of marriage are being in love. It's committing your life to that person in a monogamous relationship," Vidales said. "This would be the First Amendment that would take away rights from a group of people in our society. And that clearly is wrong."

Olzack is far from alone in his quest to define marriage as an institution reserved for a man and a woman. He's one of hundreds of Merced County residents who are die-hard supporters of the Yes on 8 campaign. The campaign is backed by a diverse coalition of religious and conservative groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Knights of Columbus and the California Catholic Conference.

In response, a coalition of gay rights and other groups known as "Equality California" is waging a countercampaign geared to keep voters from supporting the proposed amendment. In Merced County, that includes a grassroots group of gay rights activists and students who have joined forces to fight the proposed initiative. Led by the Merced PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the group hopes to sway local voters to keep same-sex marriage alive.

Opposing views

Supporters of Prop. 8 say they oppose same-sex marriage for a long list of reasons. Many cite religious beliefs, personal morality or faith, while others believe that gay marriage will have potentially harmful long-term effects on society, such as teachers being forced to talk about gay marriage in the classroom. Others say domestic partnerships already provide the same rights as legalized marriage, saying "traditional" marriage between a man and a woman shouldn't be tampered with.

On the flip side, opponents of Prop. 8 like Vidales, president of Merced PFLAG, say the initiative would turn back the clock on equal rights in the state. Passage would amount to a discriminatory policy that would deny same-sex couples the same legal protections that straight couples have always enjoyed.

Olzack, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Yes on 8 volunteer, said his church has led much of the Yes on 8 campaign efforts in Merced County, with more than 300 volunteers. They've set up campaign signs, gone door-to-door, handed out pamphlets and educated the public about the initiative.

Olzack said he supports Prop. 8 because he strongly disagrees with the California Supreme Court's decision to allow same-sex marriage, especially because a majority of state voters already supported a similar proposition in 2000. That measure, which defined marriage as between as man and a woman, was known as Prop. 22. It was backed by 61 percent of voters statewide that year.

The court rules

Still, on May 15 the California Supreme Court overturned that law. By a vote of 4-3 in favor of gay marriage rights, the court stated in its 121-page majority opinion that state law cannot deprive gays and lesbians of the same rights held by other citizens.

The court's decision was completely opposed to the will of the people, Olzack said. "They took it upon themselves to take it out of the law. That's just not fair," Olzack said. "That's not democracy to me."

Dave Capron, a Merced attorney and stalwart supporter of the Yes on 8 campaign, agreed that the state Supreme Court's decision set a negative precedent. "I think they have created a classification for equal protection that wasn't intended by the constitution," he said.

Capron also pointed out that 27 states have already put initiatives similar to Prop. 8 in place as part of their constitution, ensuring marriage only between a man and a woman in those states. "I feel like I stand with a clear majority of people in this country when we say that we believe in traditional families and traditional marriage," Capron said.

In addition, Olzack said he's concerned that same-sex marriage will lead to public school teachers having to teach their students that "a traditional marriage can be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. And I don't think that's right."

Under California law, same-sex couples enjoy many of the same protections and benefits as a married couple, Olzack pointed out. And he's not opposed to domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. "For what reason, I don't quite understand, they want to call it a marriage. A marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman," Olzack said. "It's been that way for centuries -- and that's the way it should stand."

Arguing for equality

On the other hand, Vidales, 36, and her partner Leslie Johnston, 29, the treasurer of Merced PFLAG, believe the tactics of the Yes on 8 campaign are based on fear, misinformation and prejudice. So far, Johnston said the core No on 8 campaign in Merced includes about 10 activists and about 50 students from UC Merced and Merced College who have signed up as volunteers.

Vidales said the Yes on 8 campaign's arguments blur the line between church and state. For Vidales, the issue is not about a "gay agenda" or "gay rights," but "equal rights. They are stating information that is either not true or presumptuous," Vidales said. "Here we are in 2008, and we are still a group of people who are being targeted and discriminated against, based on our sexual orientation."

Although domestic partnerships under state law allow protections to same sex-couples, Vidales said they don't allow all the protections of a marriage, particularly under federal law. Vidales said allowing same-sex couples to share domestic partnerships without the right to marry is akin to second-class citizenship for gays and lesbians.

"There's over 1,000 federal laws that protect married couples that do not protect domestic partnership," Vidales said. "For example, when a gay or lesbian person gets seriously ill, (under federal law) there is no legal document that can make their partner eligible to take leave from work."

While some supporters of Prop. 8 may fear that gay marriage will lead to homosexuality being discussed and taught in schools, Vidales, who has two children of her own, said teachers are trained to be sensitive and diplomatic with parents and students about controversial subjects like same-sex marriage. "We're not living in the 1800s or the 1900s," Vidales said. "I believe the importance of talking to children about all the different kinds of philosophies, religions and families creates a tolerance for everyone, so that we can talk about true equality."

Heated campaigns

Johnston, who has walked door-to-door with Vidales in opposition to Prop. 8, said some of the messages from the Yes on 8 campaign are extremely disrespectful toward members of the gay and lesbian community.

"That's the hard part, for me to see all of these people gathered in a hateful way toward our community," Johnston said. "At the end of the day, all we're asking for is equal rights. But they have to make it very personal and very hateful."

Prop. 8's supporters say they reject the claim that homophobia is at the root of their campaign. Olzack said he doesn't hold or promote such beliefs. "You can love the person, even though they don't necessarily go along with what you believe in or how you feel a life should be led," Olzack said. "In no way does (Prop. 8) come from a bigoted or homophobic perspective."

Will it be now or never?

Although it comes as little consolation to supporters of gay marriage, if it's passed, Prop. 8 won't have any effect on those gay couples who've already been married. State Attorney General Jerry Brown already stated that Prop. 8 wouldn't be retroactive, should the initiative pass, according to Dana Simas, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office.

Merced County supporters of same-sex marriage may have an uphill battle, in terms of getting local voters to oppose Prop. 8. A whopping 76 percent of Merced County voters supported Prop. 22 in 2000, with 27,586 voters supporting it, and 8,384 voters opposing, according to the Merced County Clerk's Office.

Johnston said the fact that the initiative is included on the same ballot as the presidential election could work in favor of supporters of gay marriage. "Hopefully, that is going to get the younger crowd to come and vote. Because overall the younger crowd has been more supportive of gay rights," Johnston said.

She also said the local No on 8 campaign has worked on targeting students at Merced College and UC Merced, educating younger voters about the significance of the issue. "If you don't vote, then you can't complain," Johnston said.

A high-powered race

As of Oct. 6, supporters and opponents of Prop. 8 had funneled a total of $41.2 million statewide into the race, according to a story by The Associated Press. The same article stated that, the coalition supporting Prop. 8, reported taking in $25.4 million through Sept. 30, compared to $15.8 million in donations raised by the committee opposing the measure.

A Field Poll released last week showed Prop. 8 losing by 17 points, although a study of elections in 26 states shows that polls typically understate voter support for such measures, according to a Sacramento Bee article.

Regardless of the polls, both sides say they're optimistic, but unsure of what to expect Nov. 4. "It sounds like it's going to be pretty close," Capron said. "We won't know until Election Day."

And Vidales said she and Johnston will be tying the knot later this month, just in case Prop. 8 does pass. "I don't want to kick myself in the butt if it happens," Vidales said.

Prop. 8 would need a simple majority of voters (50 percent plus one) to pass. If passed, it would take effect the day after its passage, according to the Secretary of State.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or

To learn more

For more information about the arguments on Prop. 8, visit for the Yes on 8 campaign or for the No on 8 campaign.