1995: Rise of the Religious Right

The Story: “On Strings and a Prayer,” issue of July 6, 1995

Issue 3 was a painful blot on Cincinnati’s civic psyche, marking the city’s official anti-gay stance for 11 long years. When City Council dared to add “sexual orientation” to a list of protected traits and practices in its 1992 Human Right Ordinance, local religious zealots sprang into action with Issue 3, a ballot initiative to ban Council from enacting any laws granting minority or protected status to gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

City voters passed Issue 3 in 1993 by 62-38 percent. Little did we know at the time that the supposedly local debate was actually a key early victory in the religious right’s national political ascension.

Hans Johnson’s cover story exposed the scope of outside groups’ influence on the passage of Issue 3 and their subsequent use of Cincinnati campaign tactics and messages in anti-gay elections across the United States. A “who’s who” of rightwing leaders — relatively unknown here in the early ’90s — funneled more than $400,000 in cash and campaign materials to pro-Issue 3 locals: Focus on the Family, Colorado for Family Values, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Donald Wildmon, Lou Sheldon, etc.

The local face for their campaign was Phil Burress, leader of the anti-gay, anti-porn, anti-abortion Citizens for Community Values (CCV) in Sharonville. Burress solicited support from African-American ministers across town to cynically raise fears that blacks would somehow lose some of their hard-won civil rights if gays were guaranteed their own civil rights.

The political fortunes of Burress and his ilk rose quickly after Issue 3, culminating in the passage of anti-gay marriage laws across the country in the 2000s, including in Ohio and Kentucky.


“Besides touting Issue 3 as a success story, national religious right groups that backed the campaign have embarked on plans to emulate aspects of the Cincinnati drive in other settings. The American Family Association … is now promoting what it calls ‘Operation Spotlight,’ a blueprint lifted from the Issue 3 battle plan.

“(Their) ambitious strategy is to dilute black voting strength by using African-American spokespeople in campaigns to repeal non-discrimination protections for gay people and to elect anti-gay candidates to city council seats.

“ ‘A key ingredient to victory is winning the Black vote,’ Burress wrote in a post-Issue 3 position paper. ‘Even with a Black spokesperson, the Black vote was split evenly, which was our goal.’ ”


Time heals all wounds, they say. Issue 3 created a new statute in Cincinnati’s city charter, Article 12, which was finally repealed by city voters in 2004. Burress threatened to reintroduce anti-gay legislation but never did.

Today, that generation of hate-mongers and religious zealots is on the run. A majority of states now allow gay marriage, and it’s only a matter of time before the federal government — through legislation or a Supreme Court ruling — fully legalizes gay marriage.

CCV is barely active these days, wallowing in the realization that they don’t represent Cincinnati’s values any longer … if they ever really did.

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