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In Bible Belt, rift emerges in pro-gay marriage movement

A member of a gay activist group holds a sign in front of St. Peter's square in the Vatican December 16, 2012. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
A member of a gay activist group holds a sign in front of St. Peter's square in the Vatican December 16, 2012. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

By Edith Honan

LOUISVILLE, Ky (Reuters) - In Kentucky, a Bible Belt state where voters have passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the movement to promote gay rights has two factions.

One seeks to overturn discrimination through a legislative path, admitting it faces long odds. The other wants to break down barriers to gay marriage with demonstrations and civil disobedience.

Chris Hartman, head of Kentucky's Fairness Campaign, spends his time lobbying for a nondiscrimination law that would protect gays and lesbians from losing their jobs or being denied housing because of their sexual orientation.

He concedes that the law, which has been proposed every year for a decade and has never been brought to a vote, has little chance of passing any time soon.

Then there is Rev. Maurice Blanchard, who says he is less patient. He is calling for an historic gay rights march on the state capitol on March 26, the day the Supreme Court begins hearing two gay-marriage cases: one on a marriage ban in California and another on a federal law that restricts the definition of marriage to the union of a man and a woman.

The issue has put the two men, both openly gay and in their early 30s, at loggerheads. Hartman says gay marriage is a non-starter for state lawmakers and talk of it will only set back negotiations for more moderate proposals, like a non-discrimination law.

"Marriage is on the forefront of many people's minds, and it's tough to go to the folks who are excited about relationship recognition and be the person to say, 'But that's not where our leaders are,'" said Hartman. "It's not that it's ambitious; it's unrealistic."

Blanchard, who was arrested with his partner in January when they refused to leave the Jefferson County clerk's office after being denied a marriage license, likens his fight to the struggle for black civil rights and says there is no proper time to demand equality.

"I want the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) person who sees this event to feel affirmed: Faith is not against me and in fact it is the basis for calling for your rights," Blanchard said.

LEGAL TO DISCRIMINATE

Nationally, 63 percent of Americans say gay marriage or civil unions should be legalized, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll of 22,395 people in 2013. Of those, 41 percent said they support full marriage while 22 percent support civil unions; 25 percent say neither option should be legal.

Of 7,869 respondents in the South, support for gay marriage is considerably less: 57 percent support gay marriage or civil unions, with 36 percent favoring same-sex marriage and 21 percent favoring civil unions. Another 30 percent oppose gay marriage and civil unions.

The poll's accuracy is measured using a credibility interval, which was plus or minus 0.8 percentage points among Americans and plus or minus 1.3 percentage points among Southerners.

"Regional efforts to redefine marriage have only been successful in deep-blue states," said Thomas Peters of the National Organization for Marriage, the leading national group opposing same-sex marriage.

He noted that the last time gay marriage came to a vote in the South, last year in North Carolina, it was easily defeated.

"Those who are organizing this march in Kentucky know that they are doing so against the face of overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage in the state," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. "They are intending to make a statement and I am sure they will succeed in making a statement."

In 2004, Kentucky was one of 11 states to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as heterosexual. Since then, national gay rights groups have focused on marriage and, over the last decade, nine states plus the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage.

This year, with gay marriage proposals being considered in Illinois, Rhode Island and Minnesota, there has been little talk of a "Southern strategy" for Bible Belt states.

But momentum has been building, said Michael Aldridge, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. In January, the tiny Appalachian town of Vicco passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based upon a person's actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Louisville, Lexington and Covington also have nondiscrimination ordinances.

Aldridge said there is no reliable count of how often gays and lesbians are penalized in the state because of their sexual orientation. Last summer, a lesbian couple in Richmond made headlines after being kicked out of a park while taking maternity pictures ahead of the birth of their baby boy.

"No state has ever passed relationship status without first having state-wide nondiscrimination protection, which is why that's our focus," Aldridge said. "A lot of people don't realize that it's still legal to discriminate."

Pockets of Louisville suggest times are changing.

On Saturday nights, a gay night club called the Connection, which claims to put on the "best drag show in America," lights up Louisville's Market Street. On a recent Saturday, the dance floor was packed with same-sex and opposite-sex couples in almost equal numbers.

NO MORE PUTTING LIFE ON HOLD

On Sunday, March 3, Blanchard came to the Open Door Community Fellowship, a gay-friendly church that sits several miles from where the Kentucky Derby is held each spring.

The reverend wanted to talk about the rally on March 26, and noted that the date nearly coincides with Martin Luther King's famous civil rights march.

"You're going to hear that this march and rally won't make one bit of difference," Blanchard said. "In 1965, when Dr. King marched with over 8,000 people from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, he knew and they knew that they were not going to change the law in Alabama. They were going to have the opportunity to get a witness of faith that would dramatize the discrimination. That's what we need to do."

Four couples from the church have been married in Washington D.C. and in one of the nine states that allow gay marriage, but the licenses have no legal weight in Kentucky.

"It's gotten to a point where I can't put my life on hold any longer," said Jay Joseph, who is 34. He recently traveled to Connecticut to marry his partner of seven years, Dane Joseph.

The couple would like to adopt children, but Dane, a citizen of Grenada, has been unable to secure work papers in part because gay couples are not entitled to spousal benefits.

Cassey Gillett, who married her partner, Stephanie Gillett, in New York last September, says she would not want to live anywhere but Kentucky, where the couple is raising four children from their previous heterosexual marriages.

"I'd love to live in New York, but I can't just abandon Kentucky," said Cassey. "Kentucky is a place for families. It is an awesome place to raise children."

She said she expects marriage to be legalized in her lifetime, but she said Kentuckians need to be shown that homosexual couples are no different from straight couples.

"I swear, if you come to our house, the most exciting thing is reading a book or playing a game," said Cassey. "We are a completely normal family."

(Additional reporting by Maurice Tamman; Editing by Prudence Crowther)

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