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Marriage debate drives meeting

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State Sen. Brent Steele left his Bedford home before dawn Monday to attend a legislative forum at Columbus City Hall, but he had overlooked one thing before making the trip.

It was his 46th wedding anniversary, and the Republican legislator had forgotten to wish his wife, “Happy anniversary.”

For Brian Walters of Columbus, a gay man who lives with a same-sex partner of many years, the offhand remark by Steele at the outset of a Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce legislative feedback session was a telling moment.

“My partner of 15 years and I don’t get to celebrate wedding anniversaries,” Walters told an audience of about 80 people attending the chamber’s first Third House meeting of the year. “So, instead, we celebrate other firsts, like our first Christmas together, our first date, our first birthdays together,” Walters said.

He asked the two legislators — Steele and State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus — attending the weekly chamber event to vote against placing a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage on the statewide ballot in November.

The Chamber of Commerce’s meet-the-legislators sessions — dubbed Third House events — generally focus on funding for schools, roads and debate over bills that affect special interests ranging from utility companies to landlords.

But Monday’s 60-minute morning session produced a lively, cordial debate among voters who want an anti-gay marriage resolution killed and those who want to protect what they see as the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman only.

Smith, who guided the anti-gay marriage amendment through the House committee that he leads last week, is on record favoring the no-gay marriage amendment.

“I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Smith told the audience, which was split with participants on both sides of the issue. “This should go before voters in November, hopefully to settle the debate once and for all.”

Sondra Bolte of Columbus, who said she opposes the amendment, argued to kill the resolution in the General Assembly to avoid “a cruel, divisive campaign over the next nine months.”

But Don Strietelmeier, a Columbus resident, praised Smith for being firm in his belief that voters should get a say on the issue at the polls this fall.

“I have no hard feelings against anyone who is a homosexual, but our culture and our society depends on the idea of marriage being between one man and one woman,” Strietelmeier said. “It’s been that way for thousands of years, and it has worked fine.”

Mark Levitt, vice president of community relations at Cummins Inc., next rose to tell legislators that the Columbus-based engine maker supports the idea of diversity and wants gay and lesbian people to be part of the company’s continued growth over the years to come.

“Diversity has always been a strength of Columbus. The more diverse our community is, the stronger it is,” Levitt said. Cummins has campaigned against the anti-gay marriage amendment for months.

Cal Brand, who identified himself as a retired minister, said he wonders if the constitutional amendment could lead to other laws in Indiana making it a criminal offense for ministers to perform gay weddings at some point, even if the marriages themselves weren’t recognized by the state.

Rick Scalf of Columbus, a Democratic activist, argued against the anti-gay marriage amendment.

“I’m a straight guy, but you don’t have to be oppressed to be against bigotry,” he said.

If the amendment is put to a vote in November, Scalf said, “I’m not so sure that Milo Smith and the state Republican Party will get the result they want.”

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