Referendum 74
12:54 pm
Thu November 1, 2012

Ad Against Gay Marriage Only Tells Part Of The Story

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Credit Darcyandkat / Flickr

The latest TV ad from same-sex marriage opponents in Washington focuses on school children, warning “schools could teach that boys could marry boys.”

The ad mirrors those that ran in other states when gay marriage came up for a vote, notably when Prop 8 was on California’s 2008 ballot. Campaign strategists on both sides agree the “schools ad" has been a game changer.

Claim: "Massachusetts local schools taught it [gay marriage] to children."

Response: "Absolutely not," David Toner, president, Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Cookie-cutter versions of the ad are now running in all four states where this issue is on the ballot: Washington, Maryland, Maine and Minnesota. Supporters of gay marriage, who’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop in this campaign, say this is it.

“Yeah, the shoe dropped. This is the shoe. It’s a big shoe,” say Dave Fleischer.

Dave Fleischer has worked on dozens of state measures to pass gay marriage, including the current campaign in Minnesota. He’s certain the schools ad helped defeat Prop 8 in California. After that vote, gay rights groups hired Fleischer to analyze the data and pinpoint deciding factors. He found a pretty clear answer in the campaign’s logs of daily interviews of 200 random voters, published in his 2010 "Prop 8 Report."

“You can see, day by day, how much popular support we had, and you can see us hemorrhaging support as that ad involving kids and schools was on the air,” says Fleischer. He says the voters who shifted away from same-sex marriage at that point were mainly parents with school-age kids. Various public polls before the Prop 8 vote showed gay marriage in the lead. But in the end, voters rejected it.

The ad that ran in California in 2008 showed a Latina grade-schooler showing her mom a book. She says, “Mom, guess what I learned in school today? I learned how a prince can marry a prince, and how I can marry a princess.”

The next part of the script matches up with the ad now running, four years later, in Washington. The parent featured in the ad, David Parker, says, “After Massachusetts redefined marriage, local schools taught it to children in second grade, including the school our son attended.”

That’s a big misrepresentation, says David Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. He stresses Massachusetts public schools do not teach about same-sex marriage.

“Absolutely not,” Toner says. “In fact the subject of marriage, gay or otherwise, is not even part of the curriculum in Massachusetts. It’s really a non-issue here. I certainly would have heard about it if there was any controversy about this issue.”

The Massachusetts Teachers Association represents most public school teachers in the state, or about 117,000 educators. Since voters approved gay marriage in Massachusetts eight years ago, Toner says he’s only heard about one complaint in one local school. It involves Massachusetts parent David Parker, the spokesman in the current TV spot.

In 2006, Parker’s kindergarten son brought a book home from school called “Who’s in the Family.” It showed different types of families, including parents who are interracial, single or gay. Parker filed a federal lawsuit against his son’s school but a US Appeals Court dismissed Parker’s case, finding the book says nothing about marriage.

In the Washington campaign ad, Parker sums up the court’s decision. Parker says, “Courts ruled parents had no right to take their children out of class or to even be informed when this instruction was going to take place.”

That’s true, as far as Parker’s case goes, but this statement ignores the broader context of parents’ rights in public education. Most states, including Massachusetts and Washington, give parents a chance to exempt their kids from school when human sexuality is in the lesson plan. However, the court rejected Parker’s argument that prior notice was required. It cited the school system’s position that the book was not primarily about human sexuality.

The schools ad from Preserve Marriage Washington immediately spurred a counter ad from gay marriage supporters.  The ad from Washington United for Marriage says “kids learn a lot of important things at school but they learn their most important values at home, from their parents.”

Thirty-one states have voted on same-sex marriage and there are likely many factors that turned public option during those elections. Seattle-based pollster Stuart Elway says the countdown clock is usually part of the equation.

“It’s historically true that most ballot measures lose ground over time,” Elway says. “The closer you get to the election, the opposition grows.”

Elway’s run three polls on Referendum 74. They show stable support for gay marriage around 50 percent but the opposition has increased, with undecided voters shifting toward a “no” vote.

Elway suggests gay marriage TV ads may be less persuasive this time around, for a couple reasons. One, the airwaves are inundated with political ads and splitting voters’ attention. Another reason, Elway says, is Washington voters are already familiar with the same-sex marriage debate.

Three years ago, Washington approved Referendum 71. It upheld the law to give same-sex couples the same state rights as married couples. That passed with 53 percent of the vote.