INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Gay couples in Indiana might eventually be able to enter into civil unions, but not marriages, under changes the House pushed Monday that could effectively delay a constitutional ban on same sex-weddings.
Opponents of the marriage ban won a temporary victory with a bipartisan vote to remove a sentence from the proposed constitutional amendment that would have barred civil unions in addition to gay marriages. Indiana law currently defines marriage as between one man and one woman, but supporters are looking to strengthen that ban by placing it in the state constitution.
If the altered amendment clears the House and eventually the Senate, it could restart the clock on the legislative process. Under the amendment process, the same measure must be approved in two consecutive sessions and then by voters, so the proposed ban could be pushed back from making the ballot until 2016 instead of 2014.
However, much could change between now and the end of this session, which is scheduled to wrap up in mid-March.
Activists gathered outside the chamber cheered loudly Monday after the 52-43 vote to remove the sentence from House Joint Resolution 3.
Twenty-three Republicans joined 29 Democrats to strip out the second sentence. Outright opponents of HJR 3 joined with lawmakers who said their concerns lies only with the second sentence to alter the measure.
Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, said he still supports Indiana’s current definition of marriage as he did when he voted in favor the ban in 2011. But a barrage of comments from people in his district, which is about halfway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, led him to change his stance on the civil unions language.
“During the past several months I started having many people approach me and ask me to not support the measure this time,” he said. “They were Republicans, they were Democrats. They were Catholic, they were Protestants. They were pastors and elders in the churches. They were my neighbors.”
Supporters of the ban argued that removing the language would set the state up for a court challenge delaying the constitutional ban.
“I believe HJR 3, as written, is the right public policy for the state of Indiana,” said Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, and the author of the marriage ban. “The second sentence simply prevents marriage by any other name.”
But the sentence has been a sticking point for many lawmakers, including some who have said they otherwise support banning gay marriage.
Opponents have argued that the civil union language could prevent employers from offering benefits to same-sex couples.
Indianapolis resident Norman Sider carried a water bottle emblazoned with the Freedom Indiana logo — the umbrella group opposing HJR 3 — and said he was heartened by the bipartisan support.
“This is just the beginning, but it was a successful beginning,” Sider said after watching the vote. “How this will turn out? I don’t know. But I would hope that both (House and Senate), when they have a chance to vote, will again be very bipartisan.”
As opposition to the more expansive ban coalesced, one of the strongest Republican supporters of the proposed ban appeared to take a step back.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, took a lead role in pushing the measure out to the full House of Representatives. But he said Monday’s vote fulfilled his priorities on the issue.
“My goals have been met in full,” he said. “I had two commitments: One, that the entire body would have the chance to vote on it. And two, that I wouldn’t ask anybody to vote any way other than their conscience.”
Republican Gov. Mike Pence has taken a sharper stance, saying he prefers to see the issue settled this year. Pence made a plea to lawmakers in his second State of the State address earlier this month.
The House could send the measure to the Senate as soon as Tuesday, setting up the second major phase of the legislative battle. Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, has said the measure would be vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee.