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Grass-roots fundraising at heart of same-sex marriage fight

Published May 5, 2014 4:25 pm

Courts • It's a grass-roots pocketbook issue for folks on both sides of same-sex court fight.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The day Utah's ban on same-sex marriage was overturned and hundreds of gay and lesbian couples rushed to say "I do," a man in Virginia slipped $5 into an envelope.

He addressed it to those who made it possible for Utah's same-sex couples to marry, like he hoped to some day.

The check arrived on Christmas. With it, the man had included a note.

It wasn't much, he wrote. But it was all he could afford.

"I thought it was really cute," said Mark Lawrence, who, along with his organization, Restore Our Humanity, has been widely credited with jump-starting the Kitchen v. Herbert lawsuit. "He was on disability and didn't have much, but he wanted so badly to be a part of this."

It got Lawrence thinking.

"Why should we be looking to give this victory to big organizations when we could be giving it to little people, way below the radar, who believe in our cause?"

In a radical restructuring of his organization's fundraising efforts, Lawrence decided to appeal to individuals by asking for small, manageable donations rather than focusing on soliciting big checks from even bigger businesses, corporations and national gay-rights powerhouses.

"This lawsuit, this fight, this whole thing is about people," Lawrence said. "We don't follow the usual path. If we did, we wouldn't be here."

Tallying the costs • If Utah wins in its effort to defend a voter-approved ban on same-sex unions, the victory would — literally — belong to everyone in the state.

According to the attorney general's office, the state has so far spent nearly $300,000 on its outside counsel in the case. The attorneys' fees were capped at a negotiated rate and will not exceed $300,000 during the lawsuit's appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court.

Attorney general spokeswoman Missy Larsen said the state had, after its arguments before the appeals court, hit its cap with lead attorney Gene C. Schaerr and assisting counsel Monte N. Stewart. Assisting lawyer John C. Bursch had not yet capped out, but was nearing his limit fast.

That means Utah will spend $200,000 on Schaerr, and $50,000 apiece for Stewart and Bursch.

If the case makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the attorneys would be extended at the same rate — instituting another cap of $300,000.

All told, the state has agreed to spend no more than $600,000.

The plaintiffs' attorney costs, Lawrence said, is likely to exceed the state's bill. Some estimate it may cost well into the millions of dollars.

But, the hope is, the couples who are fighting the lawsuit — Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity, Kody Partridge and Laurie Wood, Kate Call and Karen Archer — won't have to pay a penny.

That was part of the deal.

"When we asked them to do this, to put their lives out there and fight this law," Lawrence said, "we told them we would take care of the rest."

Urgent outreach • To supporters such as Kylee Ehat, 22, who has pledged to donate $20 to the campaign every month, it seems like a fair trade.

"The plaintiffs in this case have made their lives public when they could have easily just moved somewhere or gone to get married in California or something," she said. "It was so beautiful to me that these people were so different from everyone else. They were willing to stand up and fight for what they believe. I thought if they could do that, why can't I?"

Ehat lives in St. George. In her youth, she struggled to accept herself for who she is. Several times, she considered suicide.

Ehat met Lawrence and other members of Restore Our Humanity at a town hall the group staged in conjunction with students from Dixie State University last month.

The town hall, Lawrence said, was meant to help spread their message and raise awareness, but also to appeal to individuals.

There's an urgency to this outreach — with the Kitchen v. Herbert case on an expedited calendar in the 10th Circuit, it's possible the Denver court will rule sometime in the next several weeks, putting the case on a fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We're where we are now where we expected to be a year and a half from now," Lawrence said. "It hasn't left a lot of time to raise the kind of money we thought we'd have more time to collect."

Lawrence believes this person-to-person approach will inspire people to get involved who may not otherwise believe they can make any difference. People like Ehat, who can't afford to give much but feel connected to the cause and want to help.

"I recently quit smoking, and I was spending something like $60 a month on cigarettes. I thought, if I can afford $60 a month on something completely toxic, I can afford to spend $20 a month on my future," Ehat said. "I don't have a lot of money. I'm not well-off by any means. But I think of it like this: If you can break down your bills and find you have enough to spend $5 on coffee or a pack of cigarettes or a pizza or whatever, you can afford to spend $5 on your future, your children's future. You can donate a dollar to something that's going to change the world."

So far, Restore Our Humanity's 145 campaign — so called because of its ambition to get one person for five dollars — has raised a little more than $2,000, according to spokesman Matthew Spencer.

Ehat and her girlfriend got engaged less than three weeks ago. They spoke briefly about flying to California to be married, of not having to worry about the legal limbo that Utah's gay and lesbian couples have found themselves in.

But Ehat's fiancée has an elderly grandmother who can't make the trip. She lives with the couple and is the most important person in Ehat's fiancée's life.

Ehat knew they couldn't get married without her.

"We can't get married anywhere else," she said. "Utah's it for us."

Familiar stories • In Salt Lake City, another grandmother is donating $5 to the same-sex marriage lawsuit every time she gets paid. It's an investment in her gay grandaughter's someday wedding, she said.

Shelli King's granddaughter came out to her family two years ago around Christmastime. She was 17. No wedding was in the works.

But King decided then and there she would get ordained to perform wedding ceremonies — just in case.

"I wanted to always be ready, so when that day comes, she can come to me and ask me to marry her," King said. "And when that day comes, my granddaughter deserves to be legally protected. She deserves to marry the person she loves and live her life without fear."

With the possibility of legal gay marriages on the horizon, King said, it was time to put her money where her mouth is.

A longtime vocal supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage, King, 54, said she's broadcast her $5 donations across social media in hopes it will stir others to action.

This person-to-person networking is the kind of outreach Lawrence said he's trying to inspire.

"This is a grass-roots, take-it-to-the-streets, put-it-all-over-Facebook kind of approach," he said. "The biggest problem is people don't know about it. Awareness is the first step."

The next step, he said, is to reach more Utahns across the state — a trip to Moab is planned for the summer — and to appeal to those in other states in the 10th Circuit.

Already, Lawrence said, they've received a handful of $5 donations from individuals in Colorado and Kansas. Their stories are familiar — a Colorado grandmother who wants to see her grandchild married some day; a busboy in Wyoming who dreams of his own wedding.

Lawrence hopes to turn these donors into ambassadors, who can spread the message of how Kitchen v. Herbert may change lives in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. If the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby's decision striking down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage, the court would essentially invalidate any and all bans on same-sex unions anywhere in its jurisdiction.

Cynthia Walker, 59, sent her $5 to Utah from Idaho Falls.

Her gay son, who lives in Salt Lake City with his partner of 15 years, was married the day Shelby's ruling toppled Utah's Amendment 3.

Like so many weddings that day, it was spontaneous — a frenzied affair that drew hundreds of couples to county clerks' offices across the state.

"Everyone in my family loves Jesse and Mark, and they were all so excited about the wedding. We love them, and we love that they love each other," she said. "I always thought, 'Why can't they just be married like everyone else?' Now they are."

Her donation, she said, is to ensure they stay that way.

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Marissa_Jae —

Ways to donate

Visit Restore Our Humanity's donation page at http://www.restoreourhumanity.org/donate

Visit the 145 donation campaign's website directly at 145fund.org, where you can make a one-time donation or a regularly recurring pledge.

Text "145fund" to 50155 from your cellphone.