Turning the Tide

While the November elections nationally are focused on who will control the U.S. Senate, citizen initiatives on the ballot in three states suggest a grassroots turning of the tide on some critical social issues.

The three referenda cover different issues operating under different dynamics, but all offer hopeful encouragement for those who value traditional Christian morals. The family policy councils in all three states are associated with Focus on the Family and CitizenLink.

Casinos May Lose

Massachusetts passed a law in 2011 allowing Las Vegas-style casinos. On Nov. 4, voters will have a chance to repeal it—and make history if they succeed.

"Massachusetts is historic," says Les Bernel, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling in Washington, D.C. "There has never been a state that attempted to repeal state-approved gambling."

Over the last three years, about two dozen communities statewide have been approached by international conglomerates seeking approval to build casinos, with the promise of jobs and economic development. Most of those communities voted against the casinos in local referenda.

"We've seen the collapse of the casino industry nationally, and the oversaturation of the casino market locally," says John Ribeiro, chairman of Repeal the Casino Deal, a coalition of residents, community leaders and organizations headquartered in Winthrop, Mass. "We've seen the devastating impact of casinos on communities and families throughout the nation." He cites increased rates of gambling addiction, crime—including domestic violence and drunk driving—and the loss of jobs at small businesses in the regions surrounding casinos.

Family advocates successfully put the question of casinos on the ballot through a citizens' initiative. Faced with opposition from the state government, casino unions and the mega casinos, grassroots activists had to go all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to put the question on the ballot, finally winning in June.

Then the fight moved to the campaign. The pro-casino groups quickly raised about $2 million while the repeal groups were at $247,000 in July. Almost all the money came from two casinos with vested financial interests: MGM Resorts International is planning an $800 million hotel and casino in Springfield, while Penn National Gaming is planning a $225 million slots parlor in Plainville.

"Every casino conglomerate on earth is licking their chops at Massachusetts," says Kris Mineau, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Family Institute. "They say they expect to own the airwaves with a $15 million campaign."

But those seeking to repeal the casino law believe they have a good shot. The coalition is made up of traditional, conservative and evangelical church groups, as well as organizations and individuals from the left of the political spectrum.

"Many of these opposed us on the battle for traditional marriage," Mineau says. But he is happy to be on the same side now. Paraphrasing Matthew, he says: "If you can agree with your adversary, do so quickly."

The reason for the broadening opposition to casino gambling is manifold:

  • Unfulfilled promises regarding casino projects nationwide;
  • the human cost of gambling addictions and increased crime rates;
  • public realization that financial benefits from gambling flow mostly to casinos and the government, not the community; and
  • oversaturation. There are more casinos now than people interested in gambling.

These factors are moving attitudes in Massachusetts. In April, polls showed 65 percent of voters favored casinos. At press time, only 55 percent did. What remains to be seen is what effect the pre-election advertising blitz about the ballot question might have.

Supporting Life in Tennessee

Life advocates in the Volunteer State have been struggling since 2000, when the Tennessee Supreme Court said it had found a fundamental right to abortion in the state constitution that is more permissive than Roe v. Wade. This November, voters will have the opportunity to approve a constitutional amendment that undoes the damage that's occurred over the last 14 years.

"This amendment gives back to the people of Tennessee the opportunity to have a voice on a very important issue in our state, namely how to handle abortion policy under the parameters established by the U.S. Supreme Court," explains David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee.

"It just puts our constitution back to where it had been since 1870."

The 2000 ruling struck down the state's informed consent law, which told women about the nature of abortion, the developing fetus and the procedure's impact. It also struck down the waiting-period law and another requiring that high-risk late-term abortions be performed in the relative safety of a hospital, rather than an abortion facility.

According to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the constitution does not allow the state to license or inspect abortion facilities. Furthermore, taxpayers can be forced to fund abortions.

In a dissent to the ruling, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Mickey Barker wrote, "Plainly stated, the effect of the court's holding today is to remove from the people all power, except by constitutional amendment, to enact reasonable regulations on abortion."

The ruling was so dramatic that in 2008, the attorney general issued an opinion stating that even the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 ban on partial-birth abortion couldn't be applied in Tennessee, if the state supreme court's rationale were to be carried to its logical extreme.  

This makes Tennessee an outlier among heavily pro-life Southern states, resulting in it becoming a magnet for abortionists and abortion-minded women. One out of four women getting an abortion in Tennessee comes from out of state, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The proposed measure, Amendment 1 states: "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother."

It's a high bar to amend the state constitution: In Tennessee, a constitutional amendment requires 50 percent, plus one, of the votes cast in the gubernatorial race in the same election. So not voting is the same as voting "no." 

"Because of the minimum vote requirement, this amendment requires the pro-life community to share their views on this with their friends," Fowler says.

That is all the more important because proponents of Amendment 1 expect to be outspent by the American Civil Liberties Union, Reproductive Choice and Planned Parenthood affiliates from around the country, who are planning to raise and spend $4 million to defeat it. At press time, they had a $175,000 contribution from Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee, $50,000 from Planned Parenthood of the Greater Northwest in Seattle and $35,000 from the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

Pro-life groups backing the amendment are shooting to raise $2.1 million, mostly from individual donors. A fundraising event led by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey earlier this year brought in $250,000.

Reversing Special Treatment in Houston

In Texas, the people of Houston are fighting to have a say about what "equality" really means under the law.

The city of Houston passed a nondiscrimination ordinance on an 11-6 vote in May, providing special protections for homosexuals and those suffering from gender-identity disorders. Mayor Annise Parker, who was married in January to her same-sex partner in a California ceremony, said the ordinance is "all about me."

Among other concerns, family advocates say it will enable sexual predators to use women's bathrooms, locker rooms and showers. This allegedly happened in Indianapolis in November 2013, when a man went into a women's locker room at the YMCA at least seven times to watch young girls shower.

"People who are transsexual can decide from one day to the next if they want to be a man or a woman, creating a completely subjective situation," says Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values Action, a family advocacy group based in Austin.

Nationwide, 16 states and 143 cities or counties have some kind of law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, according to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute. But Houston's ordinance goes further than most: There is no exemption in it for churches or religious organizations.  

"The new classifications will trump the religious views of a church or individual," Saenz says. "The government will force private business owners to participate in immoral behavior," such as same-sex commitment ceremonies.

So a coalition of pastors and grassroots activists in the Houston area gathered signatures to put a referendum on this November's ballot.

They needed 17,269. They got more than 55,000. 

The city official charged with approving signatures on petitions threw out most of them, but approved 17,846. However, the city attorney then stepped in, apparently without legal precedent, and disqualified another 2,750 petitions for "technical problems"—knocking the measure off the ballot.

So the family advocates filed a lawsuit on Aug. 6, challenging the city attorney's authority. The case is heading to trial in January in state district court.

Though the question will not appear on the ballot, the court of public opinion has turned so strongly against the Houston ordinance that the city has voluntarily chosen not to enforce it until all the legal proceedings are completed.

"That is a tremendous victory," Saenz says. "We wanted to stop the ordinance, and (so far) we have."

That success, and the shifting public opinion, is creating headwinds for other Texas cities looking to emulate Houston, including San Antonio and Austin. And it  has brought together a diverse coalition of opponents that crosses racial and religious divides.

"Because there has been such unified and diverse opposition to this ordinance," Saenz says, "it's going to be much more difficult (for other cities), knowing the uphill battle they will have."

For More Information:

To find out more about the Massachusetts Family Institute, visit www.mafamily.org. For more information on the Massachusetts casino law repeal effort, visit www.repealthecasinodeal.org or http://uss-mass.org. To learn more about the family policy councils in Tennessee and Texas, visit http://factn.org and http://txvalues.org, respectively.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Citizen magazine.

Copyright © 2014 Rod Thomson. All rights reserved.