The gay marriage battle has arrived in Florida.
A proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage qualified for the November ballot in a last-minute petition tally Friday night - a development that could affect this fall's presidential election.
But a much closer watched, higher stakes measure did not make the deadline. Advocates for Hometown Democracy, which is pushing an initiative that would require local referenda for changes to local land use plans, now must aim for the 2010 ballot.
"It proves that private property rights are significantly important to Floridians, as they are to all Americans," said Barney Bishop, chief executive of Associated Industries of Florida and head of an anti-Hometown Democracy group called Save Our Constitution.
The fate of each ballot initiative came down to the final hours of the deadline as state elections workers raced to verify signed petitions faxed in from 67 counties. Backers of the gay marriage initiative thought they had enough signatures in December, but a glitch in state computers put them down by about 22,000.
The so-called marriage protection amendment, three years in the making, would define marriage in Florida as exclusively between a man and a woman.
"No other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized," the amendment language says.
Florida already has a law against gay marriage, but petition organizers say it should be put into the Constitution to protect against lawsuits or future whims of the state Legislature.
"I'm grateful to God first and our supporters second," said John Stemberger, an organizer for Florida4Marriage.org. "The bottom line is kids need a mom and dad. Same-sex marriages subject kids to a vast, untested social experiment."
Currently, 27 states have passed constitutional bans on gay marriage. Massachusetts is the only state that allows same-sex marriage, while a handful of states permit civil unions.
At least 60 percent of Florida voters must agree for the amendment to be added to the state Constitution.
To get on the ballot, a petition must get 611,009 valid signatures, which is 8 percent of Florida voters who cast ballots in the last presidential election. The 8 percent criteria also must be met in at least 13 of Florida's 25 congressional districts.
Florida4Marriage.org collected 649,346 signatures, according to the Secretary of State's Office. It cleared 8 percent in 15 of the 25 districts.
The presence of the proposal has the potential to greatly alter voter turnout in a presidential election year.
Evangelicals and social conservatives now have a much higher motivation to go to the polls.
But the proposal could also spur interest from the opposition, which is vast and diverse. An opposition group, the bipartisan Florida Red & Blue Committee, calls the initiative "dangerous and disingenuous."
Jon Kislak, chairman of the group, said Friday night: "Those pushing this amendment have had three years to collect the required number of petitions. That they met that goal literally at the final hour should send a clear message that Floridians feel the state has more important things to do than create another government intrusion into our private lives."
The question now puts Gov. Charlie Crist, the state's top Republican, in an awkward spot. He signed one of the petitions while running for governor in 2006 but has since backed away from the issue.
"I'm just a live and let live kind of guy," he recently told the St. Petersburg Times.
Crist has asked the Republican Party of Florida not to devote any more money to the cause, saying that weightier issues were at hand.
But Jim Greer, a Crist ally and head of the Republican Party, issued a statement saying the successful signature drive "illustrates the widespread support for the sanctity of marriage."
Florida4Marriage.org had raised more than $444,000 by the end of December, the latest report available. The main donors are the Republican Party of Florida ($300,000) and Florida Catholic Conference ($45,500). Hundreds of ordinary people gave between $1 and $50.
The Hometown Democracy initiative was launched by environmentalists seeking a greater say in local development decisions. It would require voter approval for changes to land-use plans.
Leslie Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer involved in the effort, pledged Friday night to keep working.
"We'll be on the ballot for 2010," Blackner predicted.
Business groups view it as the No. 1 enemy and poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into several opposition groups.
The effort was also slowed by a signature revocation effort led by Save Our Constitution. Under a state law that went into effect Aug. 1, opponents have 150 days to contact petition signers and see if they want to change their mind.
Of the 564,558 signatures verified by the Secretary of State's Office, 18,731 were revoked, putting the group's bottom line at 545,827. Signatures are good for four years.
Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
The amendment would add a new section to Article I: "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."
Web sites for both sides in the gay marriage debate: