Marriage in Midtown: How a constitutional amendment could affect our neighbors

Statehouse rally during 2014 hearings. Photo by Mark A. Lee,

by Dan Carpenter

Midtown residents Eric Baiz and Paul Skierczynski were in San Francisco in June 2008 for one of Paul’s medical conventions when Eric, out sightseeing on his own, came across a mob scene in front of City Hall.

Same-sex marriage had become legal just that week. Long lines to see the clerk had formed. Demonstrators pro and con were present in force. Baiz went inside to investigate.

“What’s it take to get married?” he asked.

“Seventy-nine dollars,” came the answer.

The following day, Baiz returned with Skierczynski and, in a bare-bones ceremony conducted by one of an assembly line of judges, the Indy Midtown partners became, by their calculation, the first legally married gay couple in the state of Indiana.

“Not planned, no friends, no witnesses. A wing and a prayer,” Baiz recalls with a laugh. “I even had to ask the judge to speed it up because we had an 11 o’clock flight back.”

The couple’s new status didn’t make any practical difference in their lives until this year, when they will file their first joint federal tax return. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. As a consequence, the Internal Revenue Service changed its rules to allow legally married same-sex couples to file as married, regardless of where they reside.

Can Eric and Paul file their state taxes jointly too? No, because Indiana doesn’t recognize their marriage, the couple must file separate state returns, just as in the past.

Ironically, if one of them were to die this year, the survivor would have a hefty tax break coming, thanks to the same General Assembly that has been working to engrave a ban on same-sex marriage into the state constitution. Although heterosexual married Hoosiers already enjoyed generous inheritance-tax exemptions under existing law, when legislators abolished the state inheritance tax last year, they did an even bigger favor for gay surviving partners.

But that’s the type of benefit no one looks forward to. What concerns many gay Hoosier couples—and their families and friends, and a widening array of citizens, business groups, religious organizations, academic institutions, and others—is the obstacle to equality that could result from a proposed amendment to the Indiana constitution.

A controversial proposal, House Joint Resolution 3 (previously HJR-6), lacked adequate support in the House Judiciary Committee, and so was moved by Speaker Brian Bosma to the Elections and Apportionment Committee, where it passed 9 to 3. Its prohibitive language went beyond same-sex marriage to prohibit civil unions:

“Only a marriage between one (1) man and one (1) woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Indiana. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.”

Although the full House approved this language in 2011, a bipartisan 52 to 43 vote on January 27 removed the controversial second sentence. Had it passed as written, the proposal would have been presented to voters at the polls in November. Because the proposal has been amended, there will be no referendum on it before 2016.

Opponents of the proposed amendment had warned that its second sentence might prevent employers from offering health benefits to same-sex partners, and might also prevent hospital visitation rights.

“The whole second sentence would have hurt heterosexual couples as well,” says Linda Daley, a longtime volunteer leader with Lambda Legal, the courtroom advocacy arm of the gay rights movement. “There could be so much time and energy spent on this, and in the long run, it would be a huge waste.”

Daley, manager of business process improvement for Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, and her partner, Paula Susemichel, who just retired as senior business consultant at software development company DPS, have lived in the same Midtown home the past 30 years. Daley, whose government employer has provided domestic partner benefits since 2012, is convinced that she and Susemichel model the bedrock values of stability and common sense that the political hierarchy proclaims.

“Hopefully, through education, we can let people understand how a constitutional amendment would affect our neighborhoods and our state and our people,” she says. “I think the legislature will do the right thing.”

Although the second sentence could be restored to the proposed amendment at several stages of the legislative process, that is considered unlikely. Even with that sentence removed, the possibility of a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage causes some business owners, and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, to fear that the talent pool available to the local economy would be diminished by an unwelcoming message. That likelihood provides much of the motivation for widespread opposition to the amendment. In Midtown, Dr. Skierczynski openly seethes over “those who think they know what our lives are like” and the “travesty of putting basic rights to a popular vote.” Baiz adds that true respect comes without an asterisk: “Tolerance is a low standard,” he says. “It’s not enough. Jesus said we have to love each other.”

Baiz is a successful realtor with the Tucker network, the holder of a master’s degree, a vestryman in Midtown’s Trinity Episcopal Church, and head of Fellowship Indianapolis, the state’s oldest and largest organization of gay men. Skierczynski is an endocrinologist, an associate professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, a member of Midtown’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, and a member and former president of the St. Thomas-based chapter of Dignity, the collective of gay Catholics. The two men have been a couple since 1994.

Indianapolis has been good to them, and vice versa. They assert that an antagonistic public policy move would turn good people away from Paul’s profession and Eric’s marketplace. Would they themselves leave? Paul thinks that, in their fifties, they may be “too old.” However, he says, “If IU had to drop domestic partner benefits, I might.” Paul carries Eric on his university health insurance policy. IU opposes the amendment, but if it had passed with the second sentence included, the university could have been prevented from providing benefits to employees’ same-sex partners.

Eric says the amendment is anti-family, “and we’re a family.” Hurt worst by the uncharted implications of the language, he insists, are gay couples with children.

It’s personal for John Moore and Troy Smythe. Together since 2000, they adopted Carlos five years ago when he was 9, already a weary veteran of serial foster placements and several removals from his biological family by the state. For the first time in his life, Carlos dared to learn to trust that he’d have tonight’s bed tomorrow.

“For us, a couple of selfish 40-year-olds suddenly having a 9-year-old, it was a challenge,” Smythe confides. “But it was much tougher for him.”

Over the recent Christmas holiday, Carlos accompanied his parents to New York City, where they were married by the Rev. Mike Mather, their pastor from Midtown’s Broadway United Methodist Church. The legal marriage both bolstered protections for the Moore-Smythe family and sharpened the prospect that they may relocate if the amendment passes. The effect of the New York trip on Carlos was significant.

“The night after, he was calling everybody, going on Facebook, he was so happy and proud,” Moore recalls. “He’s ready to take on anyone who says his family is not as good as anyone else’s.”

Moore, a data analyst for Elanco, and Smythe, a self-employed consultant who used to run the teaching branch of Midtown’s Indianapolis Museum of Art, can move tomorrow, as a logistical matter, but they would do so only grudgingly. They’d miss friends and family. They love Indianapolis, a place they deem far more progressive and open than rural Indiana and state government are. They think that the departure of residents such as themselves—“paying your taxes, paying with your time, doing your best to keep your yard up,” as Troy puts it—would be a great loss to the state. But they are tired of the zealotry that seeks to officially demonize their households.

“As a religious person,” Troy says, “I am personally offended that Christianity would be used to diminish me and to diminish my son.”

Midtown’s most eminent religious institution, Christian Theological Seminary, hears that. Like neighboring Butler University, it set itself in opposition to HJR-3 by unanimous vote of trustees and faculty, citing the worry about attracting talent but also emphasizing the preeminence of human commonality. Originally part of the same institution, CTS and Butler both emerged from the abolitionist tradition and view racial equality and marriage equality as fundamentally the same.

With CTS, says President Matthew Myer Boulton, there’s also the religious mission, bridging the variety of faiths represented by the trustees and faculty of the institution, which is formally affiliated with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ.

“The Disciples always have had a strong sense of self-determination and of reaching out across differences,” Boulton says. “In the early days of the 19th century they didn’t even call themselves a denomination, but rather a movement for unity. We here, in a deliberative and collaborative way, have determined what we stand for.”

If the religious battle over same-sex marriage exposes a schism in what believers stand for, the deciding question will be on which side of that divide the majority of Hoosiers are counted. The consensus of many in Midtown is that a fair fight will result in liberty for all Hoosiers.

“The amendment seems very un-Hoosier,” says Troy Smythe. “To be inhospitable is not what we’re about. But if a message is sent that our neighbors don’t want us, then we’ll have to decide whether to leave.”

Dan Carpenter is an Indianapolis native, a longtime Midtown resident, a survivor of 36 years at The Indianapolis Star, and the author of three books. A version of this article appeared in the February/March 2014 issue of the magazine.