A proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage failed to pass a key House committee Tuesday, and some lawmakers said the proposal is dead for this year.
The House Rules Committee voted 5-5 on a resolution supporting the amendment, with five Democrats voting against it and four Republicans and one Democrat voting for it. Since there was not a majority of votes for the resolution, the highly contentious measure that has stirred emotional debate for weeks failed to pass.
Committee Chairman Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said the emotional issue is over for this legislative session.
"I consider the matter dispensed with," Pelath said. "We took a vote and the matter is dispensed with."
Resolution sponsor Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, agreed that the proposal appeared dead.
"I think the voters of the state of Indiana should have a right to express their views on the issue," Hershman said, "but I have never criticized anyone for their stance either for or against this, and I'm not going to start now."
However, the issue could come up again next year.
Amending Indiana's constitution requires a resolution to pass consecutive, separately elected General Assemblies and then be approved in a statewide vote. The Legislature passed the proposal in 2005, so if it is approved either this year or in 2008, it could appear on the November 2008 ballot.
The proposed amendment has two sections. The first states that marriage in Indiana is the union of one man and one woman. The second provision includes a phrase that says state law "may not be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents of marriage be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."
Several lawmakers who voted against the proposal said they were concerned about potential consequences of the second section.
Before the vote, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, broke into tears as she said that the vote wasn't really about banning gay marriage. Austin said she was voting against the proposal because she feared the second section could end things such as domestic violence protections for unmarried couples.
"It's unacceptable to me to recklessly allow this section to remain unchanged, putting so many people at risk," Austin said. "I have cried over this. I have prayed over it. I have sought the advice of everybody I know to try to
make a decision that's right in my heart."
Some Indiana companies and university employees have lobbied lawmakers, saying that part could stop public and private entities for providing benefits to domestic partners. The Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence fears the amendment could nullify domestic violence laws that protect both married and unmarried couples.
Pelath said the state should not change the constitution without knowing all the consequences of the amendment.
"Once the constitution's amended, you don't get a second shot," he said.
But supporters said the proposal would simply stop courts from forcing the government to provide same-sex benefits. They say it does not prohibit the government, public employers or anyone else from voluntarily offering such benefits, and that domestic violence statutes would not be affected.
Rep. Eric Turner, R-Marion, said concerns over domestic violence laws and domestic partner benefits were unfounded. He said that argument was an effort by opponents to delay implementation of the proposed amendment.
Lawmakers have been heavily lobbied on the issue by supporters and opponents. They have heard from gay rights organizations and conservative family associations, and been bombarded with e-mails and phone calls. They have seen hundreds come to Statehouse rallies -- more than 1,000 people supporting the amendment last week and more than 200 opposing the amendment in February.
Legislators also have also heard from big business. Several Indiana companies -- including Eli Lilly and Co.
, Cummins Inc., WellPoint and Emmis Communications -- have spoken out against the proposal, saying it might affect domestic partner benefits and would send a message to potential employees that Indiana is not welcoming or inclusive.
Democratic Rep. Patrick Bauer, when he was speaker in 2004, refused to let House Republicans try to advance or even debate the amendment. He said there already was a state law banning gay marriage and accused Republicans of trying to score political points.
Some House Republican candidates made it a campaign issue in the 2004 election, and the GOP took back the House that year and the amendment passed a first time in 2005. Bauer said if Democrats regained control of the House in 2006 and he became speaker again, he would give the proposal a chance to advance.
Bauer said after Tuesday's vote that sound arguments had been made by those concerned about the potential effects of the amendment.
When asked if the vote would have political ramifications for House Democrats, he said, "I think this is something that has been demagogued pretty effectively in the past, but I also think there is a very good heterosexual argument against it and also the economic argument. Obviously this was about a lot more than gay marriage."
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