EQCA and Courage Campaign lead effort to fight anti-gay Referendum on SB 48
Karen Ocamb

Equality California holds its first post-Geoff Kors Equality Awards gala in Los Angeles on Aug. 13—this year honoring New York Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, sponsor of New York’s Marriage Equality Act, social media site Facebook and openly gay American Idol singer Adam Lambert, who has ties to West Hollywood.

But for many politicos, all eyes will be on Roland Palencia, EQCA’s new executive director. This will be his first major event in which to shine, explain his new vision for the organization and how he intends to achieve it—and most importantly, how EQCA intends to beat back a proposed referendum for the 2012 ballot to overturn SB 48, the California FAIR Education Act. The bill, authored by state Sen. Mark Leno and sponsored by EQCA and the Gay/Straight Alliance Network, requires public schools to teach about the history and contributions of LGBT people and people with disabilities.

SB 48 was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on July 14. “History should be honest. This bill revises existing laws that prohibit discrimination in education and ensures that the important contributions of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life are included in our history books. It represents an important step forward for our state, and I thank Senator Leno for his hard work on this historic legislation,” Brown said.

But almost immediately, and not unexpectedly, the anti-gay Capitol Resource Institute and the Pacific Justice Institute filed for a referendum to repeal the law. That placed an injunction on SB 48, which was supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1.

“This is not only going to affect the textbooks being produced one or two years out, but it was also going to be impacting the curriculum, bringing outside speakers, transsexuals, homosexuals to talk about themselves or historical figures,” Attorney Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute, told OneNewsNow. He said that the new “Stop SB 48” coalition is depending in part on churches to turn sufficient signature-gathering volunteers to collect half a million valid signatures by mid-October to qualify for the ballot.

EQCA has been sending out fundraising emails for the EQCA PAC, trying to raise $50,000 for a possible campaign to fight the referendum. Meanwhile, Palencia says that EQCA intends to mount a “Decline to Sign” campaign and is in discussions with coalition partners about who can do what. EQCA is relying on the eyes and ears of constituents—if you spot anti-LGBT, anti-progressive signature gatherers, report them immediately by calling the toll-free “Decline to Sign Hotline” at (877) 440-9585.

On Aug. 1, the Courage Campaign announced that it was launching a “Decline to Sign” campaign, along with the California Federation of Teachers, California Nurses Association, Equality California, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network and the UC Academic Student Employees Union.

“First our opponents wanted to ban love, so they invented Prop. 8,” Rick Jacobs, Chair and Founder of the Courage Campaign, said in a press release. “Now they want to use the same fear tactics to prevent California high school students from learning history. They want to gloss over the fact that important people in history like Walt Whitman, Pyotr Tchaikovksy, Bayard Rustin, Billie Jean King, Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Harvey Milk and even J. Edgar Hoover were gay. As Judge Walker’s findings of fact in the historic case that overturned Prop. 8 demonstrated, the proponents used fear and prejudice to scare the voters. If the folks who oppose SB 48 have their way, they’ll put a referendum on the ballot to overturn allowing real history to be told.”

There is some question about who is funding the anti-gay forces, including the “Stop SB 48” campaign. There is no evidence as of yet, however, to indicate that rich Republican Meg Whitman, who lost to Brown in the 2010 gubernatorial race, is the primary backer.

But the effort must not be taken lightly. Educating the public about what the FAIR Education Act is and what it would do are significant obstacles. Additionally, educating voters on which hole to punch on the ballot will also be difficult.

“In California, a referendum is quite unlike an initiative,” says Jon Davidson, Legal Director for Lambda Legal. “A referendum ‘refers’ to the electorate whether the bill that passed the legislature and was signed by the governor should be enacted or not. The electorate votes ‘yes’ to approve the bill and have it become law and ‘no’ to keep the bill from becoming law. So, if the referendum qualifies for the ballot, anti-LGBT forces will be asking voters to vote ‘no’ on whatever measure number the referendum is assigned, and those supportive of an inclusive and respectful curriculum will be asking voters to vote ‘yes’ on that measure—all of which is sure to generate significant errors in voting.”

Davidson said if the electorate votes to strike down SB 48, there could well be a legal challenge. “There no doubt would be significant evidence of anti-LGBT sentiment motivating those behind the referendum, which would bolster any challenge to it,” Davidson said. But “launching a legal challenge to a referendum and then losing is not a risk-free effort. ... Therefore, there has to be a careful analysis made of whether or not to bring lawsuits of this nature.”

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