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Focus on the Family starts phone campaign in Alaska
Anchorage Daily News


March 08, 2006

JUNEAU, Alaska - A national conservative Christian advocacy group has jumped into Alaska's political battle over gay-partner employment benefits.

Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., began calling people Monday. With an automated phone system, it asks whether people support or oppose a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would nullify a court decision that ordered the state to pay such benefits.

If they say they oppose the amendment, the call is ended. Those who say they support it are directed to call six state senators, including the Senate majority leader, that the group has identified as potentially obstructing the measure, said Peter Brandt, Focus on the Family's director of government and public policy.




The group says its mission is to preserve what it considers to be traditional values and the institution of the family. It intends to contact thousands of Alaskans through the end of this week as part of its national effort to lobby against recognizing same-sex couples as spouses, Brandt said.

"We're not singling out Alaska," he said. "We're interested in these matters no matter where they take place."

He wouldn't say how much it is spending on its Alaska campaign. The organization would not provide a transcript of its phone message unless the Daily News agreed to publish it in its entirety, with no editing.

Brooke Miles, executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, said phone campaigns such as this aren't subject to state lobbying laws that require advocates to say how much they're spending to influence lawmakers.

Alaska's Constitution bans gay marriage. Voters in 1998 overwhelmingly approved an amendment that says marriage can only be between one man and one woman.

Last October, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that denying gay couples the same public employee benefits as married couples _ including life and health insurance as well as retirement and death benefits _ violates the Alaska Constitution's equal-protection clause.

Legislators are considering a constitutional amendment that would effectively undo that ruling by saying that a marriage between a man and a woman is the only union "to which the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities or effects of marriage shall be extended or assigned."

Rep. John Coghill Jr., R-North Pole, is sponsoring a resolution in the House. A similar measure was introduced by the Senate Judiciary Committee with no lawmaker's name listed as its sponsor.

A resolution to amend the constitution must be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and by voters in a general election.

Only the Senate has taken action. SJR 20 passed the Judiciary Committee along party lines 3-2 on March 1, with Anchorage Democratic Sens. Gretchen Guess and Hollis French voting no.

Guess is one of the six senators on Focus on the Family's list. French is not.

Senate Majority Leader Gary Stevens, R-Anchorage, said he wasn't surprised to learn he was being targeted, because he has expressed misgivings about the proposed amendment.

"The public voted very strongly in favor of a definition of marriage, and I certainly agree with that," Stevens said.

"But this issue is a little different because it says is we can go into the constitution and deny equal protection under the law to certain people. What concerns me is, where do you draw the line?"

Sen. Con Bunde, another Anchorage Republican on the list, hasn't said much publicly about the proposed amendment, though he has concerns.

"I'm known as a pro-choice Republican, so maybe they assumed I should be lobbied," Bunde said. "But they should understand that I don't bully very well."

Democratic Sens. Bettye Davis of Anchorage, Lyman Hoffman of Bethel and Donny Olson of Nome round out Focus on the Family's target list.

Michael W. Macleod-Ball, executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the gay-partners benefit ban, was heartened to hear about Focus on the Family's telephone campaign.

"It probably indicates that the proponents are a little worried about how successful it might be," he said. "We're finding a lot of reticence on the part of the legislators, many of whom clearly feel that this is a secondary issue."

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up the matter Thursday.

Meanwhile, Coghill said he expects the first hearing on his resolution, HJR 32, in the House Judiciary Committee next week.

Coghill said Monday that he wasn't aware that Focus on the Family planned to get involved in the issue, but he was encouraged to have its support.

"If they had asked for advice, I would have told them not to do a automated phone poll, though. Those tend not to go over very well in Alaska," he said.


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