MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama's Republican Party decided Saturday against a rule meant to silence a young party leader who supports gay marriage, even though the party doesn't share her view.
Stephanie Petelos, chairman of the College Republican Federation of Alabama, created a furor in the party when she supported the U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and said more young people would take the position if they didn't fear a backlash from party leaders.
After passionate comments from both sides Saturday, the State Republican Executive Committee cast a lopsided voice vote to reject a proposed rule change aimed at Petelos' remarks. It said that no member of the party's steering committee may publicly oppose any resolution passed by the party's executive committee. Petelos serves on the 21-member steering committee because of her College Republican position.
She said she hopes the vote inspires more young people to get involved in the party and make their voices heard. "I really hope this doesn't scare or shy people away from the party," the University of Alabama senior said.
Petelos is from a family that was Republican long before the party dominated Alabama politics. Her father, Tony Petelos, was a Republican legislator, director of the state Department of Human Resource and mayor of Hoover before becoming administrator of Jefferson County. Her mother, Teresa Petelos, served as a Republican circuit judge in Jefferson County until getting beat by a Democrat last year.
The 450 members of the executive committee meet twice a year to set party policy. The 21-member steering committee is the party's top committee and meets more often to handle administrative matters.
Executive committee member Bonnie Sachs of Double Springs, who proposed the rule change, said steering committee members such as Petelos should be held to a higher standard of not publicly criticizing the party's positions, including traditional marriage.
"If we are going to serve on the Republican steering committee, we need to do so in such a way that we don't go to the media with an agenda that we may have," she said.
Party Chairman Bill Armistead said, "We cannot have party leaders standing up and denying what our platform says."
Several speakers said they don't share Petelos' view, but the party must defend her First Amendment right to express it.
"We're not the Taliban. We're not the Third Reich," executive committee member Clay Barclay of Mobile said.
"It's about free speech," added Phillip Brown of Birmingham, chairman of the Alabama Minority GOP.
Brown said the focus on Petelos stemmed from her opposing the party chairman on some matters in the steering committee and was an effort to get back at her. "I am appalled to the extent our chairman will go to make sure no one opposes him on the steering committee," Brown said.
"That's ridiculous," Armistead said later.
After voting down the rule change, the executive committee passed a resolution reaffirming its support for traditional marriage and its opposition to abortion.
One of Alabama's best known Republicans, Chief Justice Roy Moore, ended the meeting by telling the GOP, "If the Republican Party of this state should ever adopt same-sex marriage, I will no longer be a part of the Republican Party."