In November, voters in Washington, Maine and Maryland will go to the polls to decide whether same-sex marriage should be legal in their state -- providing a glimpse into the extent to which Americans' attitudes around this issue have softened in recent years.
The belief that public opposition to same-sex marriage has softened in recent years will face an important test this fall, when Washington voters decide whether to throw out a new state law legalizing such unions.
National groups on each side of the debate are expected to pour big money and political muscle into what is sure to be a nasty referendum fight here — as well in Maine and Maryland, where gay marriage also is up for a vote.
On this issue, there’s no question the nation remains divided.
But gay-rights supporters are buoyed by what they believe has been a significant shift in public attitudes in the three years since Maine voters repealed that state’s same-sex marriage law.
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During that time, national polls have shown support reaching 50 percent or better. In states where gay marriage has been approved, conservatives have crossed their party to embrace a traditionally liberal position.
And President Obama’s public endorsement last month of gay marriage triggered new conversations on a topic sure to figure prominently in a contentious presidential election.
Approval of gay marriage by voters in any of these states would be a huge symbolic victory for the gay-rights movement.
“This is clearly a turning point year when it comes to marriage,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, of the Human Rights Campaign, one of the major organizations in the country actively involved in defending Washington state’s new marriage law.
“There are a slew of polls showing majority support, the president of the United States is lending his endorsement to the cause and you have these ballot battles around the country taking place in an environment we’ve not seen before,” Cole-Schwartz said.
In Maine, gay-marriage supporters are so convinced that attitudes have changed in three years that they will ask voters to reconsider their 2009 vote.
In the years since that defeat, activists have gone door-to-door to gauge sentiment on this issue, talking to people who voted for or against the measure, were on the fence or didn’t vote at all.
“We saw attitudes had changed, we saw the results of education,” said David Farmer, with the gay-marriage advocacy group Mainers United for Marriage. “People were anxious to talk to us.”
Even the region had changed; most New England states now have some form of legal recognition for gay couples.
“I think it’s clear: The wind of change is at the backs of those who support the idea of all loving, committed people having the right to marry,” Farmer said.
Still, backers of gay marriage know they are bucking history in this fight: In 30 states, Americans have banned gay marriage in their constitutions, voting against it every time it has come before them. The most recent: More than 60 percent of North Carolinians voted in favor of a ban last month.
Voters in Hawaii, which also bans gay marriage, in 1998 approved a constitutional amendment that gave the Legislature the right to define marriage.
The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which is helping to bankroll efforts to defeat gay marriage in states, says a shift in attitude is little more than urban myth.
“The idea of this growing bubble is part of the other side’s strategy to get people to think they are part of this growing majority,” said Chris Plante, regional coordinator for NOM.
Plante also is deputy director of Preserve Marriage Washington, the campaign NOM backs in Washington, which last week turned in 247,331 signatures to the secretary of state — more than any other referendum in state history.
Over the weekend, the secretary of state’s office said it appears that nearly 1,000 of them were obtained fraudulently, but that number is not enough to keep the referendum off the ballot.
Through its Referendum 74, the campaign wants voters to undo what the Legislature did in February when it passed, and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed, the state’s same-sex marriage bill.
The campaign wants people to “reject” Ref. 74; gay-marriage supporters are seeking a vote to approve the measure.
“The truth is the majority of Americans still believe that marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman,” Plante said. “If we succeed in getting that message out there, then we win.”
But Julie Shapiro, a law professor at Seattle University, said it is disingenuous for conservatives to argue a shift in attitudes hasn’t really occurred.
People tend to soften their view around gay marriage as they encounter more people who are gay — the parents and friends of their children, co-workers, neighbors or friends of friends, she said.
“The real question is whether attitudes have shifted enough to change the outcome of an election,” Shapiro said.
Voter turnout key
The ballot issues are surfacing in a year when Americans will decide who will lead the country for the next four years.
The election is likely to boost voter turnout, Shapiro and others note. Proponents of gay marriage are hoping it will help drive a key constituency to the polls, as it did in 2008: the under-30 population, which supports same-sex marriage at rates exceeding that of older Americans.
Gay-rights supporters also are hopeful that endorsements by Obama and the NAACP will spur support within African-American and other minority communities.
But just how much influence those factors might have is impossible to know.
In 2008, California voters, through Proposition 8, approved a constitutional ban to end gay marriage in their state — even as polls leading up to the election showed a majority of voters opposed to doing that. In February, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the measure unconstitutional, opening the way for the case to reach the Supreme Court.
“Any given election is affected by so many factors — the presidential race and whatever else is happening in state and local races could affect the outcome,” said Deborah Widiss, an Indiana University law professor who has studied and written extensively on the same-sex marriage debate.
“It’s a question of who has come to vote.”
Expectations that gay marriage can prevail are higher in Washington than elsewhere in part because Washingtonians have lived for some time with the idea of same-sex unions.
Washington has had a domestic-partnership law since 2007, when its prime backer, state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, began gradually adding marriagelike benefits for same-sex and some senior couples.
In 2009, opponents collected signatures for a referendum to repeal that year’s final set of additions to the law. When voters upheld the law by a slim margin that November, Washington became the first state to approve any kind of legal relationship recognition for gay couples.
Cole-Schwartz said the debate has moved beyond assuring that gay couples will have marriagelike benefits, such as hospital visitation rights and estate-planning benefits. “Marriage is the gold standard for two people to pledge their love and commitment to one another for a lifetime,” he said.
He speaks about a culture of fair play among Washingtonians — “folks who think they shouldn’t be in the business of telling some couples that their relationship is less than anyone else’s. It’s a sentiment we are going to tap into in the campaign.”
But Plante doesn’t buy that.
People in Washington, he said, are not unlike other Americans committed to supporting traditional marriage.
The campaign’s message will be that a same-sex marriage law will not change anything for gay and lesbian couples — who already have all the benefits of marriage — but will fundamentally change how marriage is perceived in the state.
“We are confident common sense will win out — that while our gay and lesbian friends have the right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage,” Plante said.
“If we fail in our job to get that message across, then marriage fails.”
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