States Put Same-Sex Marriage on Ballot in 2012 as Public Opinion Swings

By Chris Wilkerson, staff writer – January 4, 2012

For the past decade, the political issue of same-sex marriage has played out like a tug of war in state legislatures across the country as weddings are legalized, then banned or rejected, then celebrated.

At the beginning of 2012, there are 29 states with constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and there are at least two more states with voter referendums scheduled during the year. Six states plus Washington, D.C., issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples including New York, which changed its law in 2011. [1]

Maine could be the first state to legalize same-sex marriage by ballot this year, but the state’s history with the issue has been as rocky and twisting as its shoreline. In the summer of 2009, the Legislature and the Democratic Gov. John Baldacci approved a measure making same-sex marriage legal. Opposition groups got the issue placed on the ballot during a wave of backlash against the Obama administration’s health care reform proposals and the people voted to overturn the law. [2]

There is a campaign afoot to legalize same-sex marriage in all six New England states before the end of the year. Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut are already on board. If Maine reverses course again this fall in the referendum, then Rhode Island will be the only state in the region where same-sex couples will not be allowed to formally marry. Rhode Island passed a civil union option last year, but many advocates say civil unions are an insult and a relic of inequality.

Marriage Equality Rhode Island, a group advocating for a change in the state’s law, is not satisfied with the incremental step of civil unions. “You’re never going to see us trumpet civil unions,” MERI’s campaign director Ray Sullivan told the New York Times. “We believe civil unions establish a second-class citizenry.” [3]

While New England remains the nucleus for changes that legalize same-sex marriage, other parts of the country are considering ballot initiatives that would do the opposite.

North Carolina, an island among states that changed their state constitutions to ban same-sex marriage in the middle of the last decade, has a referendum coming up in May.

The state’s Republican-led Legislature fast-tracked the legislation with no public comment and placed the measure on the statewide ballot during the Republican presidential primary election this spring. That election will naturally draw higher numbers of conservative voters since there are no statewide Democratic candidates on the ballot, according to the National Journal. [4] Additionally, at least two Democratic Congressmen were given more conservative constituents during the redistricting process and Republicans lining up to unseat them may face off in the May 8 primary with the marriage amendment option on the ballot.

North Carolina’s neighboring states of Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina all have banned same-sex marriage in their state constitutions.

When neighboring states grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, it can put some economic pressure on a state to do the same so that it does not lose the people and potentially the business that comes with the wedding industry. Proponents of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island have made this argument among others as they watch locals go to Massachusetts or Connecticut to get married.

Minnesota borders perhaps the most surprising state where same-sex marriages are legal – Iowa. Minnesotans face a big vote on the issue in the November general election.

The Minnesota Legislature decided to let the people vote to amend the state’s constitution such that marriage is defined as one man and one woman. The vote in May was largely along party lines with Republicans voting for the amendment to be voted on by the people and the Democrats voting against an amendment. [5]

The Republican Party of Minnesota was beset with a sexual scandal in the fall that will not help its moral argument for a constitutional amendment. State Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch resigned her leadership role after party leaders raised questions about her inappropriate relationship with an aide. Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, called Koch a hypocrite on Minnesota Public Radio News. “If it’s befitting for somebody whose own conduct doesn’t measure up to what they’re professing to believe in, or prescribing for others, then they should be called on that.” [6]

In many states like Minnesota and North Carolina, the state already outlaws same-sex marriage, but supporters of a constitutional amendment say such an action will protect the laws from being overturned in the courts.

Gay rights groups in Oregon had spent several years campaigning for support of a state law change to allow same-sex marriages. The group had originally wanted to get the issue on the ballot for the 2012 election in November, but decided last fall to hold off because polling indicated they might not be successful, according to the Oregonian. [7] Oregon voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2004.

Voters in North Carolina, Minnesota and possibly Maine will head to the polls this year to decide how their states will look at same-sex marriage. To date, voters have only ever turned down same-sex marriage rights when states have put the issue to a vote. States have voted against the issue 28 times – most notably in California where the people overturned a state Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal.

Across the country, though, the general population’s opinion on the issue has hit a milestone, according to ABC News. For the first time in about a decade of annual polling, The Washington Post and ABC News found that more than half of Americans – about 53 percent – think gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry. The issue is still polarizing, according to the polling, as there has been little shift among those who feel strongly for and strongly against the issue. Those in the middle are shifting the most with Catholics, men and people in their 30s and 40s showing the largest percentage change in attitude. [8]

The polling shows a considerable change in opinions about same-sex marriage since the mid-2000s, which is when many states held referendums that changed their constitutions. At the federal level, President Obama led the U.S. Armed Forces to abandon its Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy on gays and lesbians in the military and instructed the Justice Department to stop defending 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act. [9]

Sources
[1] http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/s/same_sex_marriage/index.html

[2] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/maine-gay-marriage-law-repealed/story?id=8992720#.TvoaSc3q78U

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/us/30unions.html

[4] http://hotlineoncall.nationaljournal.com/archives/2011/09/nc-to-vote-on-s.php

[5] http://www.startribune.com/politics/statelocal/122401039.html

[6] http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/12/23/marriage-amendment-hypocrisy-dayton/

[7] http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2011/11/basic_rights_oregon_will_not_p.html

[8] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/support-gay-marriage-reaches-milestone-half-americans-support/story?id=13159608#.Tvt9qc3q78U

[9] http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2011/February/11-ag-222.html

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