By Abdul-Hakim Shabazz
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Indiana lawmakers on Wednesday took a step closer toward putting a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage before voters in November, potentially bucking a U.S. trend of states, courts and voters making gay nuptials legal.
The state House elections committee voted 9-3 along party lines to advance the proposed amendment and a companion bill to a vote of the full House. Nine Republicans voted for the proposals and three Democrats against.
Indiana's General Assembly approved the proposed amendment in 2011 and must approve it a second time, in the current session, to put the question to voters in November.
Indiana bans gay marriage by statute. Sponsor Republican Representative Eric Turner told lawmakers that an amendment would provide additional protection from court challenges.
"As we have seen in the last few weeks and even the last few days, not having constitutional protection makes our state susceptible to judicial interpretation," Turner said.
Little more than a decade ago, none of the 50 U.S. states recognized same-sex marriage. Thirty-three ban gay couples from marrying by state constitutional amendment, statute, or both.
However, 17 states plus the District of Columbia now recognize gay marriage, including eight states where same-sex marriage became legal in 2013. Same-sex couples also would have the right to marry in Utah and Oklahoma if federal court rulings overturning bans in those states are upheld on appeal.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year issued two high profile decisions on gay marriage. One ruling struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The other paved the way for gay marriage to resume in California.
Democratic Representative Kreg Battles said putting the amendment on the ballot could expose children to ugly political advertising on television and radio for a ban that is already part of state law.
"Are we going to be proud as a body of that," Battles said. "We are going to let the people vote, but we wrought that."
The proposal would amend Indiana's constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman and add that "a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized."
Critics have said such a definition of marriage could lead to the repeal of anti-discrimination laws and prohibit private companies from providing domestic partner benefits.
Turner and other amendment supporters have said the companion bill would make it clear lawmakers are not trying to ban domestic partnerships or local human rights ordinances. It would not permit civil unions.
Wednesday's vote was possible after some maneuvering by House Speaker Brian Bosma. Bosma told reporters on Tuesday he reassigned the amendment and companion legislation to the elections committee when it became clear they would not likely make it out of the committee where they had been assigned.
The House judiciary committee on January 13 heard testimony on the proposals, but no vote was taken. Many proponents and opponents of the proposed amendment testified both days.
(Reporting by Abdul-Hakim Shabazz; Editing by David Bailey and Ken Wills)