ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia Republicans were publicly outraged over a judge's ruling which said the state's voter-endorsed ban on same sex marriage is unconstitutional.
But, behind the scenes, the GOP could barely contain its glee.
Unless the ruling is reversed on appeal by Aug. 7, Gov. Sonny Perdue said Wednesday that he will call for a special legislative session to put another gay marriage amendment on the ballot in November.
That could be a boon for Republicans.
The gay marriage measure drove Georgia conservatives to the polls in 2004. Now, with Gov. Sonny Perdue facing a potentially strong Democratic challenge in his bid for re-election and Republicans looking to continue their lock on the state Legislature, it could provide the GOP with a rallying cry this November.
"They can use it to try to fire up the conservative base in the state and get them out to vote," University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said.
In fact, the ruling allows Republicans to turn to two battle-tested themes that rile conservatives: gay marriage and so-called activist judges.
Georgia's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage passed by a 3-1 margin in 2004. Perdue on Wednesday complained that the popular will of the people had been undermined by "an activist judge."
Other Republicans voiced the same mantra.
"There is no place in Georgia for activist judges trying to impose their will on our state," House Speaker Glenn Richardson said.
Bullock said both issues play well for the Republicans.
Even if the gay marriage ban doesn't end up on the ballot in November, Bullock said the ruling succeeds in shifting the political debate to Republican "values issues."
State Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democrat, on Wednesday filed a notice to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Baker also asked for an expedited review, although he also noted the state already has a law on the books that makes it clear same sex marriage is not recognized in Georgia and only the constitutional amendment was struck down. A request for an expedited appeal must be approved by the judges of the Georgia Supreme Court. A spokesman for the court said while the case might be heard before August, the court's docket is already filling up into September.
Perdue said Wednesday that the court must rule by Aug. 7 because all ballot language must be filed with the Secretary of State's office by Aug. 14 to allow time for ballots to be printed. A special session of the Legislature could last at least a week and cost more than $32,000 a day.
The ruling by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance C. Russell said the measure violated the state's single-subject rule for ballot issues. Russell, who was appointed to the bench in 1996 by Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, wrote in her ruling that the measure asked voters to decide on gay marriage and civil unions in a single amendment. She did not address the issue of whether gay couples should be allowed to wed.
The lawsuit was filed eighteen months ago, soon after the ballot measure passed.
With the election looming, it was hard on Wednesday to detect much difference between Democrats and Republicans on the gay marriage issue.
House Democrats rushed to join Republican legislative leaders in calling for a special session, although they stipulated that legislators should also use such a meeting to suspend the state's gas tax to help lower prices at the pump.
Perdue's would-be Democratic opponents, Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, both said Wednesday that they supported the gay marriage amendment. Cox said she supported the call for a special session. A Taylor spokesman said he was hopeful the court would act soon enough and reserved judgment on whether calling lawmakers back to Atlanta was necessary.
In 2004, Cox had said the constitutional amendment was "unnecessary" because the state already has a law on the books making clear that same-sex marriage was illegal. Critics seized on that, saying she had flip flopped.
Cox spokesman Peter Jackson said Wednesday that her argument then was not against the substance of the amendment but with the "legislative mechanics."
"Her position has not changed," Jackson said.
Speaking to reporters after a speech Wednesday at the Atlanta Press Club, Perdue said he had "no idea" if the measure would help the GOP in this year's elections. "We're not making that decision on political calculus," he said.
Gay rights groups said the appeal was expected and politics was driving the debate.
"All these guys are running for election. And once again they're going to try to use gays and lesbians as their platform," said Chuck Bowen, director of Georgia Equality, the state's largest gay-advocacy organization. "They're using us to shield the real issues facing the state."
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