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Column: Indiana proves to be battleground in same-sex marriage discussion


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FRANKLIN — The two debaters and the distinguished judge came to the stage at the end of a long and bruising day.

Long before Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute, Jane Henegar of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and the moderator, former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard took their places behind their respective lecterns on the Franklin College campus to discuss same-sex marriage, the issue already had dominated the day.

Earlier, the Indiana House Judiciary Committee had heard testimony on House Joint Resolution 3, a proposed amendment to the Indiana Constitution that would ban same-sex marriages and prevent civil unions and domestic partnerships from being recognized in Indiana. After more than three hours of heated testimony, the committee delayed taking a vote.

The delay only ratcheted up both the tension surrounding the issue — and the speculation that votes could be shifting. Everything was up for grabs.

Hundreds of people thronged to a rally opposing the amendment in Indianapolis.

Hundreds more came down to hear this debate on a college campus roughly 20 miles south of the Statehouse. At least 300 people filled the room in which the debate was held — and more spilled over into overflow sites on other parts of the small campus. An even larger audience watched the live stream of the debate online.

(Full disclosure: As director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, I served as producer for the debate. I also am a former Indiana ACLU executive director.)

Many of the members of the crowd came in tense and muttering. Indiana has become a battleground for a huge national discussion on marriage, rights, responsibilities and principles of inclusion. The crowd came bearing strong feelings.

Henegar and Smith had been asked to deliver substantial and civil arguments in support of their positions.

And they delivered.

In supporting the proposed amendment, Smith said that his focus was not on discriminating against any segment of society. Rather, it was about preserving a basic social building block, one essential to the raising and nurturance of children.

Henegar argued that such an interpretation suggests that married couples who do not have children are not fully married and that denying same-sex couples the opportunity to enter into recognized unions denies both their rights and principles of equal opportunity.

Both debaters were skilled, shrewd, thoughtful and articulate — but they could do little to tamp down the tensions the battle over same-sex marriage has increased.

The questions from the audience brought to me on little note cards in my spot as producer reflected the intensity of feeling on both sides. Often the words on the note card were less a question than an accusation hurled at one debater or the other.

One card attacked Henegar for “hating” children and families. Another blistered Smith for supporting “totalitarian measures” to oppress the lives and rights of gay citizens.

It wasn’t hard to figure out why this particular national and cultural argument over the nature of family and marriage has produced so much animosity on both sides.

The Franklin College debate ranged from discussions of constitutional history, to professions of faith, to disquisitions on economic principle, to assertions of devotion to family and to humble requests for recognition of one’s status as a human being.

Rarely do we see questions of legality, of public policy and of human autonomy joust in such close proximity.

In this fight, the personal is political. And vice versa.

After the debaters left the stage, the crowd slowly dispersed into the night — just another evening of what is likely to be a long season of bruising arguments in committee rooms, lecture halls, public stages and private kitchens all across the state.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” 90.1 WFYI Public Radio Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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