As Maryland prepares for another shot at marriage equality when the legislature reconvenes next month, one national marriage advocacy group has bowed out of the fight.
Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry told the Blade last week that because of concerns about a marriage bill being sent to a voter referendum in 2012, that his organization declined to join a high-profile and diverse coalition of groups supporting the marriage bill.
“In Maryland, because of the likelihood that marriage legislation can be forced onto the ballot, the key question is not just passing a bill in the legislature, but defending it against an attack campaign via ballot measure,” Wolfson said. “Freedom to Marry has made it clear to members of the coalition and to lawmakers that our goal is to win, not simply to pass a bill, if there is not sufficient groundwork and investment in a campaign to win at the ballot.”
He added, “We have continued to press for clarity and progress on benchmarks for success, and have urged elected officials, national organizations, and advocates on the ground to show the plan, investment, and activities needed now to build public support and succeed at the ballot, not just the legislature,” he told the Blade
Wolfson’s remarks understandably rattled supporters of the bill and members of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition, who were no doubt stunned that a fellow marriage advocate would speak publicly about his doubts. It didn’t take long for the ironically named National Organization for Marriage to pounce on Wolfson’s comments.
NOM has sent at least two emails to supporters touting Wolfson’s concerns. “Evan Wolfson, one of the chief architects of the gay marriage movement, recently shocked the gay community by announcing to a gay newspaper that his group Freedom to Marry was refusing to join a coalition to push gay marriage in Maryland,” NOM wrote. “His reason? Wolfson knows that unlike in New York, any gay marriage bill in Maryland will have to be defended at the ballot box. The people will have a chance to vote, and right now he sees no reasonable chance of victory.”
That Wolfson finds himself a tool of NOM’s anti-gay propaganda is an unexpected twist, but he should have known that any skepticism from arguably the country’s leading expert on marriage equality would be exploited like this.
What’s more troubling than the public nature of the remarks is that if you don’t think you can win marriage equality in Maryland, then you should probably close up shop. Maryland is the nation’s wealthiest state with the most millionaires per capita, so a fundraiser worth his or her salt should be able to scare up the money needed to fund a referendum fight. In addition, Maryland is a solidly blue state with a supportive governor who will introduce the bill. The Senate has already passed the bill. And recent polls show momentum in favor of marriage equality for the state’s gay and lesbian couples. The most recent poll shows 51 percent of state voters support same-sex marriage. Granted, that’s before NOM’s inevitable homophobic ad campaign gets going, but it’s still a good place to start — and better than in other states where Freedom to Marry has been engaged. What is Wolfson’s benchmark for joining the fight? Sixty percent support? You won’t find that number anywhere in the country, so, again, if not Maryland, then where?
And if Freedom to Marry is so skeptical about Maryland’s ability to win this fight, then why does it continue to raise money from state residents? I’ve heard from several Marylanders in the past week outraged after receiving email solicitations for donations to Freedom to Marry just hours after announcing that it won’t join the coalition advocating for the state bill. If you won’t fight with us, then kindly raise money for your group elsewhere.
All of the key players in the Maryland fight have made public assurances that they are working behind the scenes to prepare for a referendum, including the ACLU, which employs a full-time staff member dedicated to this effort. It’s perfectly reasonable for Wolfson and, more importantly, financial donors to a referendum fight, to demand benchmarks and metrics before committing resources. But the only changes from earlier this year, when Freedom to Marry was engaged in the Maryland effort, have been favorable to the cause: Gov. O’Malley’s visibility and support; poll numbers moving in the right direction. So why the sudden change? And is Freedom to Marry applying its benchmarks consistently?
All this attention to the referendum ignores the fact that the legislature still needs to pass a bill. The composition of the legislature hasn’t changed since it failed to pass the measure earlier this year, so passage is not assured. Winning this fight will require all hands on deck. It’s disappointing that Freedom to Marry won’t be on board, but momentum is on the side of justice and equality, so the coalition must carry on and prove Wolfson wrong.