Floridians have to decide this November whether to put a ban on same-sex marriage in our state Constitution.
Maybe you're thinking: "Huh? Didn't we already ban this in Florida?"
Yep. You bet. Our Legislature passed a law.
But the backers say the ban ought to be in our Constitution too. So they got enough petition signatures to put it on the ballot.
There are two levels of debate here, the first being simply whether you like this idea.
But the second question is whether the Marriage Protection Amendment — by accident or design — also might outlaw all sorts of other things, such as domestic partner benefits or legal arrangements made among long-time companions.
The question arises in the wording of the amendment:
Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.
Now, what the heck does "the substantial equivalent thereof" mean?
If it means, "any kind of rights that married people have," then we might be in trouble.
Florida Red and Blue, a group fighting the amendment, claims it would "take away the ability to visit loved ones in the hospital, harm our seniors, eliminate insurance benefits for non-married couples, and require government to take an even larger role in all our lives."
The backers of the amendment say this is nonsense. What they mean by "substantial equivalent" is something close to full-scale marriage, such as a civil union. After all, marriage involves more than 1,100 legal issues and rights, according to one estimate.
But ultimately, the decision of what this means will be up to the courts. Somebody is gonna sue, guaranteed.
This past week, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that same-sex benefits violated that state's ban on anything "similar" to marriage, and were therefore illegal.
What will the Florida courts say? We got one hint in 2006, back when the Florida Supreme Court approved the wording of this amendment for the ballot.
At that time, the Florida court said this amendment was not deceptive — its "plain wording" clearly deals with unions that are like marriage overall, and does not target individual legal rights.
Still, that ruling was about the ballot language only. The court could always rule differently later.
Not for the first time, I wish there were a way to "edit" proposed amendments after the fact to clear up such problems. If the backers are sincere about not wanting to outlaw existing benefits, it would take only an extra sentence or so to make it crystal clear.
But we don't get to edit. We only get to vote "yes" or "no" on the language in front of us.
I'm a wild-eyed libertarian on this topic — I'm for gay marriage with gun ownership. I think civil marriage is nothing but a state-approved legal contract that ought to be open to everybody.
But even if you believe that same-sex marriage should be illegal, the question here is whether this amendment — which outlaws something that's already illegal — risks a future court ruling that would intrude into the private affairs of thousands of Floridians.