Gay marriage backers target New England

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Two New England states have already legalized same-sex marriage, and a Boston-based advocacy group wants to see the other four join them.

Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, known as GLAD, has launched a first-of-its-kind regional campaign aimed at winning approval for same-sex marriage in the six-state New England region by 2012.

Same-sex marriage is already legal in Connecticut and Massachusetts, a result of court decisions in cases brought by GLAD lawyers. The 2003 Massachusetts decision was the first in the nation, while the Connecticut ruling went into effect Nov. 12.

“We can make New England a marriage-equality zone by strategically combining existing legal, electoral and on-the-ground know-how to fast-track marriage in every New England state,” GLAD Executive Director Lee Swislow said.

“By 2012, we not only can have marriage equality throughout New England, we can have a road map for the rest of the country,” she said.

But proponents of traditional marriage say the organization may be setting itself up for defeat. Even in liberal New England, persuading four more states to sign off on same-sex marriage won’t be a slam dunk, especially if it involves moving through the state legislatures, said Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council.

“I’m skeptical that they’ll be able to win same-sex marriage in all six states by 2012. Public opinion continues to be much more resistant than homosexual activists are willing to admit,” Mr. Sprigg said. “We saw that in California with Proposition 8.”

Indeed, the gay-marriage movement is still smarting from its stinging defeat in November, when California voters passed Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that overturned a state Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

That wasn’t the impetus behind Six by Twelve. The campaign is pegged to the fifth anniversary of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts case. But advocates did say it was important to remain active in Proposition 8’s aftermath.

“The timing [after Proposition 8] wasn’t part of the plan, because the plan for Six by Twelve preceded Proposition 8. But I can see how folks would get comfort from this after what happened in California,” said Alison Cashin, GLAD’s manager of public education. “It’s a big defeat, but California is one state.”

California joined Florida and Arizona in approving ballot measures in November, bringing the number of states that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman in their constitutions to 29. An additional 15 states define marriage that way in state statutes.

“While they may be stepping up their efforts, pro-family groups are also stepping up our efforts in defense of traditional marriage,” Mr. Sprigg said.

The New England states have been open to marriage alternatives.

Vermont and New Hampshire both offer civil unions for same-sex couples, while Maine extends “a few of the benefits accorded to married couples” through domestic partnerships, according to GLAD. Rhode Island also allows state employees to list gay domestic partners for health care and other benefits.

While the issue has enjoyed considerable success in the courts, same-sex marriage has never won through the state legislative process. The California legislature did approve same-sex marriage bills twice, but both were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That could change when Vermont’s legislature convenes later this month. The Six by Twelve campaign’s best bet for a quick victory lies in Montpelier, where lawmakers are already planning to introduce same-sex marriage legislation.

A similar bill was introduced last year, but legislators elected instead to form a commission to study the issue. The panel held hearings throughout the state, where people testifying in favor of same-sex marriage routinely outnumbered opponents. The commission ultimately issued a report supporting gay marriage while stopping short of recommending it. Still, the issue’s advocates say the panel helped lay the groundwork for this year’s debate.

“A lot of legislators were nervous about this issue, so we saw this as an opportunity to educate Vermonters in rural areas and also in the cities,” said Beth Robinson, chairwoman of Vermont Freedom to Marry. “This session, we’re not looking for an alternative to moving it [a bill] to the floor. We’re asking them to do the right thing now.”

The bill could run into trouble with Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican who doesn’t support same-sex marriage, according to his spokesman.

“He believes our civil-union law provides equality in same-sex relationships,” spokesman Steve Wark said.

However, the governor, who won re-election handily in November, has never said that he would veto a bill, leaving same-sex marriage advocates with a sliver of hope.

“Given that he’s a red governor in a blue state, he’s managed to do that by being fair-minded,” Ms. Robinson said. “Our own belief is that he’ll do the right thing.”

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