As Illinois becomes the 16th state to approve gay marriage at a public signing ceremony set for Wednesday, the political trench warfare over same-sex unions may be facing a watershed moment: Illinois is the last state where gay-marriage advocates have an advantage in both the governor’s office and statehouse, and defenders of traditional marriage say the political playing field will be far more level in the remaining 34 states in the years ahead.
The days of “easy targets” for gay marriage are over, said Brian S. Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which supports traditional wedlock between a man and a woman.
Gay-marriage activists dispute the idea that their victories have been easy but agree that their struggle is far from over. They expect to be active next year in several states, including Indiana and Oregon.
There’s “a shifting landscape” on marriage, said Brian Silva, executive director of Marriage Equality USA.
“When we provide education, when we talk to people, when we live our lives out loud, we’re finding that in states from Iowa to Illinois, from coast to coast, we are winning because people respond to family,” he said, citing growing support in polls for same-sex marriage among the American public as well as among conservatives, Republicans and clergy.
After a decade of disappointments — at one point, voters in 31 states approved constitutional amendments blocking same-sex marriage — advocates have been riding a remarkable wave of success.
Massachusetts became the first state to issue same-sex marriage licenses in May 2004.
This year alone, Democrat-led legislatures in Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii and Illinois moved to legalize same-sex marriage. All of the bills were happily signed by Democratic or independent governors.
The long-contested state of New Jersey recently joined the gay-marriage column when Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, acquiesced after federal judges signaled their support for marriage equality.
Now, however, no state — except for West Virginia, which has a tradition of conservatism on social issues — where gay marriage is forbidden by law or constitutional amendment has a government wholly dominated by Democrats.
That means those activists “have run out of easy targets,” Mr. Brown said.
The “false narrative of ‘inevitability’ ends here,” he said, because most of the remaining states either have constitutional amendments that recognize only man-woman marriages or have significant popular opposition to same-sex marriages.
Gay-rights activists are undaunted.
When Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signs gay marriage into law, 38 percent of the nation’s population will live in states where same-sex marriage is legal, according to Freedom to Marry.
The goal of gay-marriage advocates is to have more than half of the U.S. population in states that have legalized such unions by the end of 2016.
“What we have to do — like other civil rights movements and social justice causes — is win a critical mass of states and a critical mass of public support, which together creates the climate for the Supreme Court to bring the country to national resolution,” Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, recently told The Associated Press.
In Oregon, gay-marriage supporters are working to put a measure on the 2014 ballot asking voters to repeal that state’s marriage amendment and legalize same-sex marriage instead.
To win in Oregon, the best campaign models probably are those that won last year in Maryland, Maine and Washington state, said Mr. Silva, whose grass-roots organization supported those campaigns.
Several key messages got across, “that marriage does matter: the word, the institution, the rights and benefits,” as well as “the recognition of family, commitment and the love that two people have for each other,” said Mr. Silva. “We were extraordinarily successful in those campaigns, and we look to repeat that in Oregon.”
In Republican-dominated Indiana, the situation is different, he said. There, gay-marriage activists are playing defense as lawmakers consider the second passage of a constitutional marriage amendment, which is necessary before it can be sent to voters.
“What we’re working on for early next year is to stop the legislature from passing it a second time,” Mr. Silva said.
Traditional-family advocates are preparing for action, too.
Despite Illinois’ approval of gay marriage, Indiana has a conservative political culture and “we haven’t followed Illinois’ cues since the Civil War,” Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, said Tuesday.
The Republican leaders of both chambers of the General Assembly have committed to hearing the marriage amendment, and “we think strong majorities will again decide that the people should decide,” Mr. Smith said.
He noted that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, has been clear in his support for traditional man-woman marriage and for a popular referendum on an amendment.
On Tuesday, Indiana House Speaker Brian C. Bosma rejected a request to kill the proposed marriage amendment, saying it will be assigned to committee and will be dealt with like any other bill.
Supreme Court fallout
The state-by-state battle over gay marriage was set up by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in June striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Although gay-marriage supporters hailed the ruling as a victory, the high court declined to take the more ambitious step of invalidating all laws at the state level banning gay marriage. With many states unlikely to approve gay marriage by law or popular referendum for the foreseeable future, the Supreme Court decision meant the battle shifted to each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia to set their own policies.
In addition to Oregon, 27 states have constitutional amendments defining marriage only as the union of one man and one woman.
Gay couples have mounted legal challenges to these measures in states including Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia.
Three states that do not have constitutional provisions on gay marriage — West Virginia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania — already are embroiled in “freedom-to-marry” lawsuits.
That leaves Wyoming as the only state that doesn’t permit same-sex marriage, doesn’t outlaw it by a voter-passed constitutional amendment and isn’t embroiled in a lawsuit over the issue.
But even Wyoming hasn’t completely escaped the firestorm: Liz Cheney, who is seeking the Republican nomination for that state’s U.S. Senate seat, has ignited a family feud with remarks about loving her lesbian sister, Mary, but not supporting gay marriage.