2011: an ‘epic’ year for marriage equality

Gay marriage advocates saw some setbacks, but progress, especially in opinion polls, is encouraging

Wolfson.Evan

Evan Wolfson

Dana Rudolph  |  Keen News Service
lisakeen@mac.com

One leading advocate has called 2011 an “epic” year for marriage equality. But was it really?

While only one state — New York — enacted full marriage rights for same-sex couples, it was the most populous state to have done so thus far.

Five other states also moved closer to marriage equality than ever before. Public opinion shifted dramatically toward supporting equality. And the Obama administration announced that it no longer considers a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act constitutional.

On the negative side, however, three states failed to pass marriage equality bills that had been introduced in their legislatures, and two states passed bills to put measures on their ballots in 2012 that will seek to ban marriage for same-sex couples under their state constitutions.

Despite the negatives, Evan Wolfson, president of the national Freedom to Marry group, said in an interview that 2011 was “an epic year of real transformation.”

Successes
On the federal level, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote a letter to Congress in February, stating that the administration believes Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and that the federal Justice Department will no longer defend the law in court.

Section 3 of DOMA states that the federal government will not, for any federal purposes, recognize the marriages of same-sex couples.

Holder’s letter said the administration believes laws disfavoring persons based on sexual orientation should have to pass the most stringent judicial review — heightened scrutiny. And he said the administration would argue so in two cases challenging DOMA in the 2nd Circuit.

LGBT legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, in its December “State of the Law 2011” report, called Holder’s letter “game changing.” Wolfson said it represented “an immense historical shift.”

Another sign of this shift, Wolfson said, was the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers. DADT repeal will help fuel the marriage equality effort, Wolfson said, “because Americans are now going to see the women and men serving our country as openly gay members of couples and openly gay members of families.”

On the state level, the biggest win in 2011 came in New York, where lawmakers passed a marriage equality bill in June. When Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Dem., signed the bill, he doubled the percentage of same-sex couples living in states that allow them to marry.

New York is also the only state to have passed marriage equality through a Republican-led legislative chamber, its state Senate.

Cuomo.Andrew

Andrew Cuomo

Cuomo, by adding his vocal support to the bill, “put his political capital on the line,” Wolfson said. His success prompted Politico.com to call him a “national contender” and leader of the Democratic Party’s progressive base.

The Washington Post said his triumph made him “a first among equals when it comes to the jockeying for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.”
Wolfson said, “The freedom to marry went from being a perceived and presumed ‘third rail’ that politicians ran from to now being a pathway to political gain.”

Five other states came closer to marriage equality than ever before. Maryland for the first time passed a marriage equality bill out of a legislative chamber, its Senate, although the measure fell short of winning in the House. And Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and Rhode Island each passed civil union legislation.

Setbacks
But there were disappointments, too.

In Colorado, a civil unions bill was killed on a party-line vote in the Republican-led House  Judiciary Committee, after passing the Democrat-controlled Senate.

And in Rhode Island, the civil unions bill disappointed many because a bill for full marriage equality had been on the legislature’s agenda. It was dropped after it failed to gain enough support, despite large Democratic majorities in both chambers and  Independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s promise to sign it.

LGBT groups were also disappointed with a provision in Rhode Island’s civil unions bill providing extensive exemptions on religious grounds for those who don’t wish to recognize those unions. Chafee himself said the civil unions law “fails to fully achieve” the goal of providing same-sex couples with equal rights.

In the courts
Two states saw progress in lawsuits that could lead to marriage equality. In New Jersey, marriage equality advocates have sued the state, claiming that the state’s existing civil unions laws do not provide them with full equality — an equality the state Supreme Court said in October 2006 is guaranteed by the state Constitution.

In California, a three-judge panel of the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Dec. 8 on procedural matters related to the case to determine the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Regardless of the outcome, the case will almost certainly be appealed to the full 9th Circuit court and/or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ups and downs in states
Three states successfully played defense in 2011.

Iowa, New Mexico and Wyoming held firm against attempts to pass bills for ballot measures that sought to ban marriage for same-sex couples under their state constitutions. If passed, Iowa’s bill would have taken away the right to marry that same-sex couples gained in 2009.

But there were some clear setbacks in 2011 as well.

North Carolina and Minnesota passed bills for ballot measures in 2012 that seek to ban marriage for same-sex couples under the state constitutions. And Indiana and Pennsylvania started the process for such ballot measures, which could see further action in 2012.

In Maine, however, LGBT advocates gained enough signatures to place a measure in favor of marriage equality before voters on the 2012 ballot — although advocates in California and Oregon decided to postpone such attempts and continue to build support.

These ballot measures could be impacted by what was perhaps the most significant win in 2011: a shift in public opinion towards support for marriage equality.

The polls
Support for marriage equality nationwide rose about 1 percent per year between 1996 and 2009, but jumped to a rate of 5 percent per year in 2010 and 2011, according to a July analysis of over a decade’s worth of polling data by Joel Benenson, President Barack Obama’s lead pollster, and  Jan van Lohuizen, President George W. Bush’s lead pollster.

Freedom to Marry commissioned the study.

The average level of support for marriage equality was 41 percent in 2009, but 51 percent in 2011, based on four leading national polls — CNN-ORC International, Gallup, Pew and Washington Post-ABC News.

This change is driven in part by “overwhelming generational momentum,” Wolfson explained, with almost 70 percent of voters under 40 supporting marriage equality.

But the analysis also concluded that since 2006, support has risen 15 percent among seniors, 13 percent among Independents and 8 percent among Republicans.

Additionally, it found that marriage equality supporters now hold their views as strongly as opponents, which was not the case in the past.

“The politics of the freedom to marry have changed dramatically, as has public support,” said Wolfson.
All told, he said, the events of 2011 mean that “We now have real wind in our sails as we go forward.”

© 2011 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 16, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

New York may be next to legalize gay marriage

Evan Wolfson

Rhode Island considering civil unions; efforts under way in 6 states to ban gay marriage

DANA RUDOLPH | Keen News Service
lisakeen@mac.com

The openly gay sponsor of a marriage equality bill in Rhode Island said last week he would push for a civil unions bill instead, setting off a slew of criticism from LGBT groups.

Six states are considering legislation that would ask voters to amend their state constitutions to ban recognition of any legal relationships for same-sex couples. And all this was on the heels of a dramatic loss for a marriage equality bill in Maryland in March.

Has the state legislative fight for marriage equality lost momentum?

Not according to Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national Freedom to Marry group.

“Both Rhode Island and Maryland are very much still in play,” said Wolfson. “. . . The fact that we don’t win it exactly on the day we want . . . doesn’t change the overall momentum that is strongly in our direction.”

The “highest priority” right now, said Wolfson, is New York. He said he is “very hopeful” a marriage bill that is expected to pass the New York State Assembly, which is under Democratic control, will also pass the Senate, where Republicans hold a 32-to-26 majority.

Wolfson acknowledges the Senate may be more difficult. While a marriage equality bill passed the Assembly three times in the past four years, an attempt to pass it in the Senate in 2009 failed by 14 votes.

New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican who opposes marriage equality, has nevertheless said he would let a marriage equality bill come to the floor.

And several recent polls show that a majority of voters in the state support marriage equality. A Siena College poll April 11 showed that 58 percent of New Yorkers support it, with 36 percent opposed. An April 14 Quinnipiac poll showed 56 percent support, with 38 percent opposed, and a New York Times estimated projection on the same date also showed 58 percent support.

Additionally, two dozen New York business leaders, including Lloyd C. Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, and John Mack, chairman of the board of Morgan Stanley, on April 28 issued an open letter arguing that legalizing marriage for same-sex couples would help the state attract talent and remain competitive.

“Winning New York would really be transformative,” said Wolfson, “because New York has enormous cultural and political leadership in the United States and in the world.”

Freedom to Marry and several other LGBT advocacy groups — the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, the League of Women Voters, the Log Cabin Republicans and Marriage Equality New York — have formed the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition, which is coordinating efforts to lobby for the marriage equality bill this session, which adjourns in June.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has expressed strong support for passing such a bill this year, has asked members of his staff to work with the coalition.

In Rhode Island, openly gay Democratic House Speaker Gordon Fox, a sponsor of that state’s marriage bill, said in a statement April 27 that “there is no realistic chance for passage of the bill in the Senate,” and that he will not move forward with a vote in the House.

But the Providence Journal newspaper also reported that Fox said he did not have the votes to pass the bill even in the House, where Democrats hold 65 seats to Republicans’ 10.

Fox instead introduced a bill for civil unions on Tuesday, May 3, and said he is “optimistic” that the bill could pass both chambers this session.
But Fox’s decision has not gone over well with LGBT groups.

Marriage Equality Rhode Island, which supports full marriage, held a rally at the State House to protest Fox’s decision to drop the marriage equality bill. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, and others, issued statements criticizing Fox’s decision and calling it “completely unacceptable.”

“Nothing short of marriage is equality for Rhode Island’s gay and lesbian citizens and their children,” said Karen Loewy, a GLAD senior staff attorney. “More to the point, civil unions tell gay people and their kids that they are second-class citizens and that their families matter less than other families.”

Wolfson called Fox’s decision a “miscalculation.” He noted that polls show a majority of support among voters, that Rhode Island already recognizes marriages of same-sex couples performed elsewhere, and that nearby Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont all began with civil unions and have moved to full equality.

Similar to Rhode Island, marriage equality supporters never had a clear majority in Maryland either, even with the support of Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat. The bill passed the Senate in Maryland, but on March 11, the House voted unanimously to send the bill back to committee.

But in Maryland, several LGBT groups, including Equality Maryland, the leading state organization behind the bill, expressed approval for the move.
Wolfson noted, however, that Maryland was “within a couple of votes” of passage. With “a little more time to make the case and organize,” he thinks achieving equality could happen in early 2012.

Meanwhile, three states have enacted civil union laws this year — Delaware, Hawaii and Illinois. Wolfson said that, while civil unions are not the true goal, they still “sometimes can be a stepping stone.”

Camilla Taylor, marriage project director for Lambda Legal, agreed, saying that civil unions “are an important step forward” in states where same-sex couples have no benefits or protections. She added that Lambda is “often very involved,” as it was in Illinois, in drafting such legislation.

But Lambda also brought a suit before the New Jersey state Supreme Court claiming the state’s civil union law did not provide full equality. The court last June refused to hear the case, saying it must first go through the trial court process.

Taylor said she could not say whether Lambda would be filing any further cases to contest civil unions, noting that it is important in each state to first “develop a record of the ways in which it harms people to deny them equal access to marriage.”

Six states — Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington — also have active legislation that would ask voters to amend the state constitutions to ban marriage, and in some cases, recognition of any legal relationships, such as civil unions for same-sex couples.

New Mexico and Wyoming both considered but did not pass such bills this year. Wyoming also rejected a bill that sought to prevent the state from recognizing marriages and civil unions of same-sex couples from other jurisdictions.

Washington state has seen a mish-mash of marriage-related bills. The state already allows same-sex couples to register as domestic partners and, on Feb. 14, bills were introduced in both chambers of the legislature for marriage equality.

On April 5, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, signed a bill to recognize legal relationships of same-sex couples from other jurisdictions as domestic partnerships. But there is also a bill in the House that would ask voters to ban marriage for same-sex couples under the state constitution.

Democrats have a majority in both chambers.

The situation in New Hampshire is also mixed. A House committee voted March 3 to table a bill that would repeal the state’s existing marriage equality law, thus postponing further consideration until January 2012.

But opponents of marriage equality have said they will also introduce a bill next year seeking to ask voters in November 2012 to approve amending the state constitution to ban marriage for same-sex couples.

© 2011 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

—  John Wright

Researcher coming to Dallas to interview gay couples about effects of marriage amendment

America's Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage by Daniel PinelloProfessor Dan Pinello of John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York is studying the effects of anti-gay laws on same-sex couples in Super-DOMA states. Those are states such as Texas that have ratified amendments to state constitutions banning recognition of all forms of relationship rights.

Pinello is the author of America’s Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (2006) and Gay Rights and American Law (2003).

He has already conducted more than 100 interviews in Georgia, Michigan and Ohio to determine the grassroots impact of these laws.

He will be in Dallas interviewing lesbian and gay couples in the DFW area for his new book. He’s investigating the grassroots effects of the 2005 Texas Marriage Amendment and wants to meet with a wide variety of same-sex pairs in committed relationships.

Pinello will be in North Texas Jan. 8-16. Interviews will take no more than 60 minutes. For further information, please contact him at dpinello@jjay.cuny.edu.

—  David Taffet