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Maine, N.H. new gay marriage front

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gay marriage advocates are looking to New Hampshire and Maine as the next states likely to approve same-sex marriage laws after this month's string of legislative and court victories in New England and the nation's heartland.

On Monday, same-sex couples were allowed to legally wed in Iowa after the state Supreme Court in early April ruled in favor of such marriages. That decision was followed by the District of Columbia's City Council voting to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and the Vermont General Assembly voting to legalize gay marriages.

New Hampshire and Maine are now at the top of the list in the fight for gay marriage, with New Hampshire's House narrowly approving a same-sex marriage bill last month and a Maine Legislature committee holding a hearing last week on the issue that drew a crowd of more than 4,000 people, mostly gay marriage supporters.

A New Hampshire Senate committee did reject a gay-marriage bill 3-2 in April, with one Democrat, Sen. Deborah Reynolds, joining two Republicans against the legislation after a strong show of opposition from pro-family conservative groups.

In the Granite State, however, bills rejected in committee still go to the floor. A Senate vote on the legislation is slated for Wednesday, and gay-marriage advocates say they're hopeful that they can cobble together enough votes to send the bill to the governor.

"I think in New Hampshire we've made incredible progress over the last few years," said Janson Wu, staff attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston.

The organization launched last year its "Six by Twelve" campaign, aimed at legalizing same-sex marriage in all six New England states by 2012. So far the group is halfway to its goal.

Marty Rouse, national field director of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, predicted that in addition to New Hampshire and Maine, two more states will approve same-sex marriage before the end of the year — New Jersey and New York.

The movement received a huge boost in New York when same-sex marriage legislation was introduced earlier this month by Gov. David A. Paterson. Both the New York and New Jersey bills are unlikely to move until the end of the calendar year, Mr. Rouse said.

He also described how the Human Rights Campaign and other organizations have backed Democratic legislative candidates in key states during the past four years to help create a climate friendly to gay marriage.

"You do need the overall mood of the electorate to shift," Mr. Rouse said. "And we've positioned ourselves in such a way that we can take advantage if the mood of the electorate is about to shift."

But the recent victories for gay marriage advocates has not been without some backlash.

"Everyone's using Iowa and Vermont to jump-start their cause in other states," said Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth, which opposes gay marriage. "My hope as a strategist is that gay-rights groups are overplaying their hand. It seems that there is some kind of backlash going on; the question is, will it be big enough?"

In Iowa, state Sen. Merlin E. Bartz, a Republican, launched a petition drive last week aimed at encouraging county recorders to reject marriage applications from same-sex couples until Iowans are able to vote on a same-sex marriage referendum.

Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate have tried repeatedly to convince the General Assembly to place a traditional-marriage constitutional amendment on the ballot, but they've been stymied by the Democratic leadership. The legislature was expected to adjourn Monday.

"We've attempted four times on the floor of the Senate to bring up a constitutional amendment or at least deal with the court decision," Mr. Bartz said. "After all these efforts failed, you say, OK, the people of Iowa can't vote on this, they can't make their voices heard, so let's at least do a petition."

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, a Democrat, blasted the petition drive, comparing it to efforts in the last century to stop mixed-race couples from marrying. Mr. Bartz rejected the analogy, calling it "a subterfuge to the real issue."

In terms of backlash, gay marriage advocate Mr. Wu said it has come from "a vocal but we believe small number of opponents, and they've been able to generate perceived opposition."

Mr. Rouse of the Human Rights Campaign said the backlash so far has been more muted than four years ago, when civil-union bills were starting to emerge in the state legislatures.

"You're always going to have backlash here and there. Of course you are," he said. "But that in itself is becoming more of an anomaly … Now it's almost like, if you don't support gay marriage, your child looks at you like you're crazy."