November 20, 2012 at 11:36 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Election results bolster state marriage fights
Barack Obama, Election 2012, gay news, Washington Blade

Polls show President Obama’s same-sex marriage support did not hurt him among voters. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Same-sex marriage advocates contend the Nov. 6 election results have given them additional momentum to fight for nuptials for gays and lesbians in their respective states.

Ray Sullivan, campaign manager of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, the group fighting for marriage rights for same-sex couples there, noted to the Washington Blade in a post-Election Day interview the General Assembly will have “more pro-equality legislators seated than ever in history” in 2013.

Gay House Speaker Gordon Fox, who sparked controversy in 2011 when he endorsed a civil unions bill because of a lack of support in his chamber for a marriage measure, has pledged to call a vote on a proposal that would allow nuptials for gays and lesbians in the state before the end of January. The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union noted in May only 52 couples had obtained civil union licenses since the state’s civil union took effect in July 2011.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed an executive order earlier this year mandating state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in neighboring Massachusetts, Connecticut and other states. He has also publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples, even though he reluctantly signed the controversial 2011 civil unions bill into law.

“There is this sense that finally in Rhode Island it’s not a matter of if, but when,” said Sullivan, who noted MERI and other advocates could focus on building additional support for the same-sex marriage bill in the state Senate if it passes in the House. “The results from last Tuesday both here and throughout the country represent quite frankly ground-shifting momentum for the pro-equality effort. Our focus and our jobs will be to capitalize on that momentum, reaffirm the support we already have, work with this record [majority and] finally make 2013 the year that we get this done.”

Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington on Election Day approved referenda that either extended nuptials to gays and lesbians or upheld their state’s same-sex marriage laws. Minnesotans also rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who supports nuptials for gays and lesbians, is among those who spoke out against Amendment 1.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who signed his state’s civil unions bill into law in May 2011, raised eyebrows in August when he suggested to the Huffington Post state lawmakers could debate a same-sex marriage bill as early as next year.

Garden State Equality Chair Steven Goldstein expressed confidence in a post-Election Day statement New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled state legislature will override Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of the same-sex marriage bill lawmakers approved earlier this year. The state does not have a referendum or initiative process, but Goldstein stressed his group remains opposed to the idea of allowing voters to consider marriage rights for gays and lesbians at the ballot.

“The majority should never vote on the civil rights of a minority, period,” he said.

Same-sex marriage advocates in other states are poised to implement a different strategy.

Basic Rights Oregon has launched an online campaign designed to bolster support for a 2014 ballot measure that would overturn the state’s constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Oregon would become the first state in the country to overturn such a ban if voters support the referendum.

“As more and more Americans are having conversations with gay and lesbian friends and family about why marriage matters, they’re coming to realize that this is not a political issue: This is about love, commitment and family,” reads the appeal. “We know that we are on the right path. Our outreach, just like that of the states who [have won] the freedom to marry is winning hearts and minds.”

Rick Sutton, executive director of Equality Indiana Action, which opposes a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban marriage for same-sex couples that is expected to go before voters in 2014, told the Blade his group has already looked to the campaign that defeated Minnesota’s Amendment 1 for guidance.

“It’s pretty clear to me to win an amendment like that — there’s was very similar to what ours will likely be — you have to have a pretty broad coalition of businesses, faith community, labor, retired folks, the whole gamut,” said Sutton. He noted WellPoint, the Simon Property Group and other Indiana-based corporations have already spoken out against the proposed amendment. “It will be difficult to attract and retain top quality scientists and engineers, particularly younger ones, who just don’t think this is something government should be getting involved with. They’re concerned about their future workforce.”

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Nov. 14 indicates 51 percent of Americans support marriage rights for same-sex couples. A Gallup poll conducted shortly after President Obama publicly endorsed marriage rights for same-sex couples noted 60 percent of respondents said his position on the issue would not influence whether they would support or oppose his re-election bid.

“What happened I think with this election is that it’s taken away the argument from our opponents that when legislators are forced to vote to affirm the right of same-sex couples to marriage equality, the popular sentiment is on the opposite side,” Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov told the Blade.

Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois on May 30 filed lawsuits against the Cook County Clerk’s office on behalf of 25 same-sex couples. Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez have both said they support the litigation, while Cook County Clerk David Orr and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are among those who support marriage rights for same-sex couples.

More than 4,800 same-sex couples have taken advantage of the state’s civil unions law since it took effect in July 2011, but Cherkasov said the election results confirm “there’s popular support for marriage equality.”

“Lawmakers should follow suit and actually grant marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples in loving, committed relationships,” he said. “We intend to carry that message to our lawmakers in Illinois.”

Sutton agreed as he discussed Obama’s evolution on the successful same-sex marriage referenda in Maine, Maryland and Washington on Election Day.

“National momentum is there,” he said. “The time has come for the other side to realize where they are. They won’t give up quietly. Their argument never changes. It’s always the same, and we’re ready for that. We’re absolutely ready.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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