This could be a landmark year in the marriage equality movement, as several states appear close to enacting marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.
Advocates are working to legalize marriage rights for gay couples in Washington State, Maryland and New Jersey; efforts are also underway to pursue civil unions in Colorado. Meanwhile, opponents are hoping to repeal same-sex marriage in New Hampshire.
Washington State could be in the strongest position among other states where advocates are undertaking efforts to legalize marriage equality. The legislation was introduced last week by request from Gov. Chris Gregoire (D), who announced her support in a news conference Jan. 4.
“I’m announcing my support for a law that gives our same-sex couples in our state the right to receive a marriage license in Washington — the same right given to our heterosexual couples,” Gregoire said. “It is time, it’s the right thing to do — and I will introduce the bill to make it happen.”
The number of co-sponsors for the legislation in the House already exceeds the votes needed for passage there. In the Senate, the legislation has 23 co-sponsors, which is two supporters short of 25 votes needed for passage.
Josh Friedes, marriage equality director for Equal Rights Washington, said he’s “really delighted” with the level of support the legislation has found upon introduction — especially from two Republican state senators who’ve already signed on in support.
“That was really important because it shows Republicans in Washington State that the moral arc is bending toward support for marriage,” Friedes said.
The Washington State Legislature is meeting only for a 60-day period this year, so if legislation is to make it to Gregoire’s desk, the marriage bills would have to pass by March 8. Per legislative rules, one version of the legislation would have to pass either the House or Senate by Feb. 14. Committee hearings are scheduled Monday.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley is set to introduce marriage equality legislation as part of his legislative package for 2012. Last year, the bill legislation passed the Senate, but advocates pulled the bill from the House floor after they determined they didn’t have enough votes for passage.
Lesbian Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City) said chances for passage in the House have “greatly improved” now that O’Malley has made marriage a legislative priority.
“We’ve had the whole summer to talk to people, we’ve got more people involved and I think it will have a better shot,” Washington said.
Washington added that assigning the bill jointly to two panels — the Health & Government Operations Committee and the Judiciary Committee — would broaden the number of lawmakers who will hear testimony on marriage.
“I think as more delegates get to see what impact the current exclusion of gays and lesbians from the right to marry is doing for Maryland families, I think they’ll understand that passing civil marriage will be the right thing to do,” Washington said.
As far as timing for the vote, Washington said she thinks the vote on the marriage bill will take place before March — when it happened last year — because of the heavy workload lawmakers face this time around.
But Washington State and Maryland will face additional challenges even if the governors in those states sign the marriage legislation into law because residents there could put the measures on the ballot in November through a voter-initiated referendum process.
In Washington State, the signatures needed to bring a measure to referendum is 4 percent of the total votes from the last gubernatorial election, which in terms of absolute numbers would be 120,577 names. In Maryland, a total of just 55,736 signatures is necessary to put a law on the ballot in the upcoming election.
Washington said a referendum on the marriage bill in Maryland is a possibility for which advocates of same-sex marriage must prepare.
“I’m hoping that it doesn’t go to referendum, but if it does, I’m confident the citizens of Maryland will know that it’s time for all families and people to be treated equally under the Maryland Constitution,” Washington said.
Friedes said advocates in Washington State are taking “nothing for granted” after previous losses of same-sex marriage at the ballot and encouraged LGBT families to talk to others there about “why marriage matters.”
“We need to grow the number of people who support marriage equality and make sure that those who do, vote,” Friedes said. “The thing that would hurt us the most is if people become over-confident.”
Another state where advocates are hoping for passage of same-sex marriage is New Jersey, where legislation was introduced last week in both chambers of the legislature. A Senate committee is set to hold a hearing on the legislation Tuesday and the Assembly is expected to have one afterward.
But New Jersey is unlike Washington State or Maryland in that its governor, Republican Chris Christie, campaigned on a promise to veto any such bill that reached his desk.
However, when asked about the marriage bill this month, Christie didn’t reiterate his pledge to veto and made comments suggesting that his tune may have changed on the issue.
“When forced to make a decision, if forced to make a decision on it, I’ll make a decision,” Christie reportedly told NJ.com in Camden, N.J.
Gay Assembly member Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton) said he “wouldn’t rule the governor out” as someone who would sign the marriage bill if it reaches his desk.
“In the last several weeks, he’s visited four out of the six states that have marriage equality: Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York,” Gusciora said. “I don’t think he saw any diminishment in the institution of marriage other than when Newt Gingrich was around.”
Gusciora added he thinks the legislation has a “good shot of passage” in the legislature and the bill should reach Christie’s desk by the end of February.
New Jersey has no voter-initiated referendum process, so if Christie signs or allows the legislation to become law, it’ll stay on the books.
In Colorado, advocates are pressing to push civil unions legislation into law. Last year, the legislation was approved by the Senate, but a House committee voted 6-5 against reporting it out to the floor.
Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the legislation will have to go through the Senate once again because the House committee voted to kill the bill last year.
“All indicators suggest had it gotten out of committee, it would have passed on the floor of the House, which is why advocates felt comfortable enough to really push to have it come up again rather than waiting until after elections and then having new legislators in place,” Warbelow said.
Warbelow added Colorado has a longer legislative session that extends until May, so the civil unions bill may not be acted upon as soon as the marriage bills in other jurisdictions.
Advocates are pursuing civil unions in Colorado as opposed to marriage rights because the state constitution has an amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
While progress on relationship recognition could come in those states, there is also the potential for repeal of same-sex marriage in New Hampshire.
Gov. John Lynch (D), who signed marriage equality into law in 2009, has pledged to veto repeal, but the Republican supermajority of the legislature may have enough votes to override his veto.
Warbelow said the legislature is “highly likely” to pass the repeal legislation in the first round, but “all the effort” has been focused on making sure there aren’t enough votes to overturn Lynch’s veto.
The legislature has pushed back the timing for the repeal vote. According to the Eagle Tribune, House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt said he won’t bring up the repeal measure until February.
“We must deal with some critical financial and economic-related legislation first, as well as legislative redistricting, prior to any discussion of gay marriage,” Bettencourt was quoted as saying. “It’s critical to keep legislative priorities in their proper order.”
Other bills related to advancing marriage rights for same-sex couples could emerge in Illinois and Rhode Island; both states passed civil unions last year.