California gay marriage groups divide on 2010 fight

Wed Aug 12, 2009 2:25pm EDT

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* Biggest California pro-gay-marriage group plans 2012 fight * Smaller groups vow to fight state gay marriage ban in 2010 * Fight expected to spill onto national stage

By Peter Henderson

SAN FRANCISCO Aug 12 (Reuters) - The biggest California gay rights advocacy group on Wednesday said it needed three years to build a coalition to repeal a ban on same-sex marriage in the state, creating a rift in the movement with those who want to go back to the polls next year while anger is hot.

California, the most populous state and often a standard-bearer for social liberalism, is the biggest prize in U.S. culture wars. The next fight over gay marriage is sure to draw in national organizations, cost $100 million or more, and may affect the next U.S. presidential campaign if it takes place in 2012.

California's November 2008 vote to ban same-sex marriage, months after the state's top court legalized it, bolstered the power of social conservatives but sparked nationwide protests among gays and their allies. It was followed by legalization of gay marriage in a handful of mostly Northeastern states. [ID:nN12135306]

"We can have majority support by 2012," said Marc Solomon, marriage director of Equality California, in a conference call. His group raised the most money and led the 2008 campaign against Proposition 8, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and was approved by California voters.

Big donors are not ready to fund a new fight so soon after failure, and a door-to-door campaign will take time, he said.

But smaller groups have said waiting will sap momentum among gays and their allies still smarting from the unexpected ballot results. They vowed to mount a 2010 challenge, which would coincide with federal mid-term elections.

"This is not some kitchen table group. If you stop that momentum now, those people won't necessarily be there in 2012 when you decide to start your campaign back up," said John Henning, Executive Director of Love Honor Cherish.

His group has a plan to raise more than a million signatures with volunteers and says a $32 million war chest would be enough to win the fight.

The California debate reflects a national question over how solid opposition is to same-sex marriage. Many advocates say that exposure to stable same-sex couples and assurances that churches will not be forced to marry gays will convince a silent majority that anyone should be able to marry. But most states explicitly ban such gay unions, and have often done so by popular vote.

Activism among gay rights groups has intensified since the November defeat in California, but social conservatives with deep pockets and legendary organizational skills are preparing for the next fight, too.

Proponents of the 2010 challenge say that the tide of anger will drive their success and others will join as a campaign plan is laid out and early efforts show success.

"We're in a movement era," said Rick Jacobs, the chair of the Courage Campaign, which trains grass-roots organizers. The day after the California ban passed -- and after President Barack Obama was elected -- was a wake-up call for gay advocates, he said.

"On the one hand they put an African American man in the White House when it was impossible. On the other hand they had their rights taken away." (Reporting by Peter Henderson, Editing by Frances Kerry)

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