Calif. Baptists have 'gay marriage' deadline

SAN DIEGO (BP)--It may not be hyperbole to say California voters have less than four months to prevent the legalization of "gay marriage."

That certainly is how Chris Clark, pastor of East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church in San Diego, views it.

The California Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case next year that could result in the nation's most populous state legalizing "gay marriage." But Clark and thousands of volunteers across California are trying to prevent that by gathering signatures in an attempt to place before voters a constitutional amendment that would protect the natural definition of marriage.

Clark and company don't have much time: They have a goal of collecting more than 1 million signatures by a state-imposed April deadline. If they fall short, the effort dies.

It's actually the second go-round for Clark and others involved in a coalition called ProtectMarriage.com, which had hoped to place the amendment on the 2006 ballot but fell considerably short. This time the imminent hearing by the state's high court could serve as a catalyst.

Nationally, both sides of the issue are closely watching California, realizing that a pro-"gay marriage" ruling by the state court would be the biggest win yet for homosexual activists in their goal of legalizing it in all 50 states. It also would make it legal on both coasts, joining Massachusetts.

The ProtectMarriage.com effort has the support of some key conservative leaders, including Focus on the Family's James Dobson and the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins. Perkins, in fact, is coming to a meeting of pastors in San Diego Feb. 6. If enough signatures are gathered, voters will consider the issue in November.

"The last time this was attempted, pastors really weren't on board," Clark told Baptist Press. "... This time pastors have to rise up. There is no other choice. If I sit idly by while this goes on and I allow the laws to be changed and I don't say a word, I'm shirking my responsibility as a proclaimer of God's Word. I can't sit idly by and let that go."

Clark already is working to get Southern Baptists involved. In mid-November he spoke for five minutes to messengers at the California Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting, telling them about the issue's urgency and encouraging them to ask their church members to sign petitions.

Technically, ProtectMarriage.com needs only roughly 700,000 valid signatures. But because a significant number of those gathered will be tossed out as invalid, coalition supporters are aiming for a target of 1.2 million. They collected approximately 300,000 last time. This time, they hope to collect half of the 1.2 million signatures by volunteers and the other half by paid signature gatherers. That paid signature effort itself will cost around $1 million, Clark said.

"It's going to have to be a statewide movement, and it's going to have to have a combination of a couple of things," he said. "First, there's going to need to be a grassroots movement of volunteers getting signatures."

Clark is confident it can be done, in part because he said he's seen a "movement of God's spirit" in his county "unlike anything I have seen." Additionally, Clark said, Christians have become emboldened to get involved after watching various politicians support "gay marriage." The cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco all signed briefs asking the court to legalize "gay marriage," and in September San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican, shocked observers by saying he supports his city's effort. The California legislature twice has passed bills legalizing "gay marriage," only to see them vetoed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has walked a tightrope on the issue and last session signed a handful of pro-homosexuality bills.

"This thing has gathered a lot of momentum by people just seeing some of the actions by our government," Clark said.

The effort to pass a marriage amendment in California was hindered last time by divisions among conservatives on the issue. A coalition calling itself VoteYesMarriage.com supports a more strongly worded amendment that would not only ban "gay marriage" but also same-sex domestic partnerships -- legal in the state -- in their current form.

In 2005-06 both groups tried but failed to place their own respective amendment on the ballot. The VoteYesMarriage coalition is not yet gathering signatures this year but hopes to begin doing so soon.

Clark said he is supporting the ProtectMarriage.com amendment instead of the alternative one because it "polls better" and because it "can pass."

"When you approach the typical California voter ... they don't want to take anybody's rights way," he said of the current domestic partnerships law. "That is the difference.... While the other one may be more iron-clad, it won't get in the constitution if it doesn't pass. That's why I'm backing this one. We cannot afford to lose.

"I'm at a point right now where I'm not even willing to go and debate this issue [which amendment is better] any further. We don't have time. We have to get these signatures by April 1 to get it on the ballot. None of us have time to sit around and talk about which one is better. We're going to go with this one because it wins. We can get people to jump on and sign it."

The California Supreme Court has not yet set a date for oral arguments in the lawsuit, although the chief justice told the Associated Press the case will be heard next year. The court must rule within 90 days of oral arguments.


Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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