The recent Supreme Court ruling striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and striking down a California law prohibiting same sex marriage has once again propelled the political debate over same sex marriage to the forefront.
It’s not just a national debate; it’s gaining attention in Arkansas.
A group called Arkansans for Equality is working on putting a proposal on the ballot in 2014 that would repeal Arkansas’ Defense of Marriage Amendment — Constitutional Amendment 83 — which defines marriage as only between one man and one woman. This amendment was approved by 75 percent of the voters in 2004. Arkansans for Equality is working on the ballot language for the approval by the attorney general, who rejected the group’s initial wording last week.
At the same time, several lawsuits have been filed challenging the constitutionality of Amendment 83. One lawsuit involves two women in White County, who filed the lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court, arguing that the state constitutional ban violated their right to be married and have their marriage recognized by the state of Arkansas. The Arkansas couple was married in Iowa this year.
With the Arkansas DOMA under attack on two fronts, a top state official made a rather unique argument in favor of repeal. Last week Grant Tennille, director of Arkansas Economic Development Commission, appeared at a press conference for the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, led by Arkansas native Chad Griffin. Tennille argued that allowing same sex marriage in Arkansas would help with economic development.
"I said what I said today because I am convinced that those communities and countries that are the most free have the most vibrant economies," Tennille told me after the press conference. "There are 10,000 reasons why I would not want to live in New York or San Francisco, but I cannot deny that they have, for generations, attracted the brightest thinkers, the best ideas and the lion’s share of the capital. They have done so because they don’t care where you’re from, what language you speak, what religion you follow, or, today, with whom you sleep. If you are the best at what you do, that’s where you’ve gone in our country to make it big. I think that opening our minds is going to be the key to opening opportunity for this state."
But Tennille could not point to any study to back up his claim. Instead, he directed me to a list of companies that filed an amicus brief opposing DOMA at the appellate court level. The list included around 50 companies with about half of them on the Fortune 500 list.
"Those lists include companies from many different sectors of the economy, but the presence of many of the largest tech companies is conspicuous," said Tennille. "These are the kinds of jobs that Arkansans ask me about every day; and I believe that these companies, increasingly, will factor issues of equality into their site-selection process."
The argument is not striking a chord throughout the Democratic Party. Although Tennille was Gov. Mike Beebe’s choice to head up the AEDC after previously working as his Deputy Chief of Staff, they have different thoughts on the subject.
"Gov. Beebe currently supports Amendment 83, but he also supports the right of Mr. Tennille and other members of his administration to express their personal opinions on their own time. He does not know what impact repealing Amendment 83 would have on economic development," said Beebe’s spokesman Matt DeCample.
Mike Ross — the apparent frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for governor — also disagreed with Tennille. "I have always supported the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman," commented Ross, who said his jobs plan does not include allowing same-sex marriage.
Ross’ primary opponent, Bill Halter, has taken a more nuanced stance.
"Bill Halter rejects discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, or sexual orientation," said his spokesman Bud Jackson. "As governor, he is duty bound to uphold the Arkansas Constitution, as it stands now or however Arkansans may amend it. His campaign for governor will not divert its attention to an effort to change the constitution. He will leave that to Arkansans to decide so his focus can remain squarely on his fundamental priorities to create new jobs, improve education and expand opportunity for all Arkansans."
Although the national Democratic Party has been outspoken in its support for same sex marriage, for now Tennille appears to be a minority within his party in Arkansas on the issue. But it will be interesting to see if his economic argument gets any traction, particularly if the issue makes it to the ballot.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.