Checking the Facts in Gay Marriage Ads About Schools

Nov 1, 2012

The latest TV ad from same-sex marriage opponents in Washington focuses on school children. It warns “schools could teach that boys could marry boys”. This ad mirrors those that ran in other states when gay marriage came up for a vote. And campaign strategists on both sides agree, it’s been a game changer. KUOW’s Liz Jones takes a closer at the ad’s claims and the track record of this particular strategy.

Four years ago, California’s Proposition 8 was the battlefront for same-sex marriage. Now, it’s Referendum 74 in Washington… plus similar measures in three other states this election.

In all of these elections, then and now, opponents of gay marriage have turned to a similar argument.

Here’s part of the ad that aired in California in 2008:

Child Actor: “Mom, guess what I learned in school today?”

Woman: “What sweetie?”

Child Actor: “I learned how a Prince can marry a Prince, and how I can marry a Princess.”

Then, the script of that ad matches up with the one now running in Washington. This one here:

Ad / David Parker: "After Massachusetts redefined marriage, local schools taught it to children in second grade, including the school our son attended."

Let’s stop there and take a look at that claim.

Do Massachusetts public schools teach kids about same-sex marriage?

Toner: "Absolutely not. In fact the subject of marriage - gay or otherwise – is not even part of the curriculum in Massachusetts."

That’s David Toner. He’s president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Toner: “It’s really a non-issue here. I certainly would have heard about it if there was any controversy about this issue.”

Toner’s group represents most public school teachers in the state…about 117,000 people.

Since gay marriage passed there eight years ago, Toner’s only heard about one complaint in one local school.

It involves the parent featured in the ad we just heard. His name is David Parker. He filed a federal lawsuit against a Massachusetts school district a few years ago.

According to court documents, Parker objected to a book in his son’s first-grade classroom. It showed different types of families, like parents who are interracial, single or gay.

A US Appeals Court dismissed Parker’s case, finding the book says nothing about marriage.

In the Washington ad, Parker sums up the court decision.

Ad / David Parker: "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 partly true, as far as Parker’s case goes.

Massachusetts law gives parents a chance to exempt their kids from school when human sexuality is in the lesson plan.

But 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.

Cookie-cutter versions of this ad are running in all four states where this is on the ballot.

Supporters of gay marriage, who’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop in this campaign, say this is it.

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

Dave Fleischer has worked on dozens of state measures to pass gay marriage.

He says this “schools” ad can be pivotal. He’s certain it 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 daily polling of 200 random voters.

Fleischer: “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.”

Fleischer 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.

There are likely many factors that turned public opinion in California and other states where this has come up.

Seattle-based pollster Stuart Elway says part of the equation is the countdown clock.

Elway: “It’s historically true that most ballot measures lose ground over time. 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.

Elway: “Getting attention is the biggest problem for anybody running a campaign right now is to cut through all this noise and have your ad even seen, so there’s that…”

Another reason, Elway says, is Washington voters are already familiar with the same-sex marriage debate.

Three years ago, Washington voters 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.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio