Gay-marriage advocates, coming off their first ballot-box victories, are targeting New Jersey and five other U.S. states where the road to legalization is simpler because voters can’t overturn laws through referendums.
In Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island, lawmakers plan to consider or revisit the issue next year, and all except Minnesota already allow civil unions. Even though they prevailed in votes in four states Nov. 6 after a decade of defeats, backers say they prefer to make homosexual weddings legal through legislatures or courts.
“Where we’re going next are states where we can win in the legislature,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director at Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group that helps and funds local gay-rights organizations. “The ballot, without question, is not our preferred route because we fundamentally don’t think it’s appropriate for the public to be voting on the rights of gay people or other minority groups.”
The pool of states that have yet to legalize or ban gay vows is shrinking. By Jan. 1, same-sex couples will be able to marry in nine states and the District of Columbia, home to a combined 14 percent of the U.S. population. On the other side of the issue, 30 states have constitutional amendments defining marriage as a pact only between a man and a woman.
The losing streak for same-sex marriage at the polls ended on Election Day, when voters affirmed laws passed by the legislatures of Washington and Maryland, extended the right to gay Mainers and rejected a bid in Minnesota to constitutionally define marriage as heterosexual. Gay-marriage groups spent $35 million, compared with $10 million for opponents, according to both sides.
Before then, legalization had come only through legislative or judicial action as gay marriage was defeated all 32 times it appeared on a ballot.
Last week’s victories were aberrations, said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex nuptials. If they were indicative of what most Americans believe, supporters would be pushing for ballot measures rather than opposing them, he said.
“They don’t want the people to have a say on this issue -- they want to take it through the courts and ram it through legislatures,” Brown said. “They’ve won four votes. We’ve won 32. The track record is clear.”
The Washington-based organization hopes to make Indiana the 31st state to amend its constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
Advocates of same-sex marriage say they are optimistic because their movement enjoys the broadest backing to date among politicians and the public.
Support has gone from a potential liability to “almost a necessity” for Democratic candidates, Solomon said. Of the 47 party members newly elected to the U.S. House, 43 ran as gay-marriage supporters.
Forty-nine percent of voters said gay marriage should be legal in their state, according to exit polls taken on Election Day. That mirrored the support in an October poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, which also found that opposition had fallen to a record-low 40 percent.
Brown called the polls flawed and said that those done for his group show greater opposition.
While backing has grown among all groups over the past decade, it remains lowest among white evangelical Protestants, conservative Republicans, Southerners and those who attend religious services at least once a week, Pew polls show.
In Illinois, New Jersey and Hawaii, demographic profiles suggest a larger degree of support for same-sex marriage, according to Pew and Census data compiled and analyzed by Bloomberg and D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer at Pew. All have worship-service attendance rates at or below the national average, household income above the U.S. median and higher-than-average percentages of adults with college degrees.
Even so, advocates aren’t targeting those states because of demography, Solomon said. Instead, they are among the logical battlegrounds because groundwork has already been laid, he said.
In New Jersey, supporters are working to help Democrats assemble the two-thirds majority in the legislature needed to override Republican Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a gay-marriage bill passed in February. Lawmakers in Rhode Island, soon to be the only New England state without gay marriage, plan to introduce a bill in the 2013 legislative session. Bills are also in the works in Illinois, Delaware, Hawaii and Minnesota.
None of those states allow voters to overturn legislation through referendums.
It’s worthwhile to introduce marriage bills even if they aren’t expected to pass because it sparks dialogue, Solomon said. In heavily Democratic New York, for instance, last year’s legalization of gay vows came after a previous attempt failed in the Senate.
“It’s not snap your fingers and get it done,” Solomon said. “The more conversations we have on this issue, the more people engage with their lawmakers and people in their community, the more support we get.”
Freedom to Marry’s strategy moving forward will also include attempts to repeal constitutional amendments, beginning with a referendum in Oregon in 2014, Solomon said.
For now, advocates and opponents are waiting to hear from the U.S. Supreme Court, which is slated to consider on Nov. 30 whether it will take up the issue this session. Cases it may consider include the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages even in states where it’s legal; and Proposition 8, a ballot referendum that California voters approved in 2008 that invalidated a court ruling legalizing the unions.
Democrats, who control both chambers of the California Legislature, won enough extra seats last week to secure the two-thirds majority needed to place a repeat of Proposition 8 on the statewide ballot without Republicans votes.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento and supporter of gay marriage, “believes that voters would deserve to have another say,” said his spokesman, Mark Hedlund.