NEW YORK — For years, foes of same-sex marriage had a potent talking point: They’d won every time the issue went to a popular vote. That winning streak has now been shattered in a multistate electoral sweep by gay-marriage supporters — a historic tipping point likely to influence other states and possibly even the Supreme Court.
“It’s an astounding day,” said Kevin Cathcart of the gay rights group Lambda Legal, recalling that in 2004 alone the gay-marriage movement went 0-13 in statewide elections and was 0-32 overall since 1998.
In Tuesday’s voting, however, Maine and Maryland became the first states ever to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. Washington state seemed poised to follow suit, although slow ballot-counting there continued Wednesday. And in Minnesota, voters rejected a proposal to place a ban on gay-marriage in the state constitution, a step taken in past elections in 30 other states.
“The anti-gay opposition kept moving the goal posts and had as their last talking point that we could not win a popular vote,” said Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. “Last night, voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and, all signs suggest, Washington proved them wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.”
Heading into the election, gay marriage was legal in six states and the District of Columbia, in each case owing to legislation or court orders rather than popular vote.
Activists said Tuesday’s results will likely spur pushes for same-sex marriage in states that already have established civil unions for gay couples — including Illinois, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Delaware.
Democratic takeovers of both legislative chambers in Colorado and Minnesota may also prompt moves there to extend legal recognition to same-sex couples. In each state, the Democratic governors, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Mark Dayton of Minnesota, would support such efforts.
In Minnesota, state Sen. Scott Dibble, who is openly gay, is among several Democratic lawmakers uncertain if an immediate push for gay marriage makes political sense. But Mr. Dibble, who is 47, said of himself and his partner: “We’ll be married in Minnesota in our lifetime.”
Whatever happens at the statehouse level, the U.S. Supreme Court is also likely to become a pivotal battleground in the next phase of the gay-marriage debate.
The justices are expected to confront same-sex marriage in some form during the current term.
Several pending cases challenge a provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that deprives same-sex couples of federal benefits available to heterosexual couples. A separate appeal asks the justices to decide whether federal courts were correct in striking down California’s Proposition 8, the amendment that outlawed gay marriage after it had been approved by courts in the nation’s largest state.
James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, termed the referendum results “an indisputable watershed moment” that almost certainly would influence the Supreme Court.
“When making decisions on civil rights issues, the court follows the country, rather than leading,” he said. “They don’t make decisions in a complete public-opinion vacuum.”
He noted that if the high court struck down Prop 8, that would immediately add California — with its 37 million residents — to the list of states allowing same-sex marriage.
Had the four measures lost, said Mr. Wolfson, justices might have been reluctant to wade in on the side of gay marriage. Now, he said, they could do so “knowing that their support will stand the test of time and, indeed, be true to where the American people already are.”