State Marriage Watch: The Battlegrounds For Marriage Equality In 2011

With the Republican majority in Congress showing little interest in taking up equality legislation, most of efforts to expand marriage to gay and lesbian Americans will likely occur in the states, where lawmakers will be looking to advance marriage initiatives or scale them back. Today, the Wonk Room is unveiling ‘State Marriage Watch,’ a semi-regular feature that will chronicle the latest marriage advancements in the states and conservative efforts to beat them back. What follows is a summary of the latest developments in the marriage battleground states of Rhode Island, Maryland, New York, California, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wyoming, Iowa, and New Mexico.

– RHODE ISLAND: Last week, lawmakers introduced legislation in the House and Senate that expands civil marriage to gay and lesbian residents, but excludes religious institutions from being required to wed same-sex couples. On Friday, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin lashed out at newly minted Governor Chafee (I) and legislative leaders, calling same-sex marriage “morally wrong and detrimental to the well-being of our state.” Chafee has since reiterated his support for marriage, saying “Our foundation here in Rhode Island was built on tolerance and acceptance, and this is an area I want to move our state forward on, by building on our strengths of centuries ago.” A Brown University poll from 2009 found that 60 percent of state residents supported same-sex marriage, with 63 percent of self-identified Catholics saying they support marriage equality, and only 32 percent opposed. Meanwhile, the local chapter “of the National Organization for Marriage is launching a $100,000 TV advertising campaign” aimed at defeating the legalization of marriage in the state.


– MARYLAND: Since Attorney General Douglas Gansler issued an opinion allowing the state to recognize unions performed elsewhere — thus permitting couples to simply travel to DC — advocates are hoping that lawmakers interested in maintaining marriage revenues in the state may be more inclined to support marriage equality. Still, moderate Democrats in Maryland have yet to embrace the policy and last week, the Senate’s minority leader announced that he plans to “introduce a bill that would create civil unions for gay and straight couples,” possibly clouding the marriage issue. Advocates predict that a marriage bill will easily make it out of the Senate, but will face challenges in the House. During his re-election bid, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said that he would sign a marriage bill and has since reiterated his support.

– NEW YORK: Marriage advocates believe that “the chances are better than ever to legalize same-sex marriage, even in a Republican-controlled Senate.” A marriage initiative passed the state Assembly last year, but failed in the Senate by eight votes. In November, two opponents of marriage equality lost their seats and advocates say that they have gained at least two pro-marriage votes. Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos has “promised to bring the issue to the floor again” this year.

– CALIFORNIA: The Proposition 8 case remains in limbo after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals punted the appeal of Judge Vaughn Walker’s historic ruling against the measure to the California Supreme Court, noting that it could not rule on the constitutionality of the measure until the higher court confirmed the standing of the plaintiffs.

– NEW HAMPSHIRE: Republicans are in control of both houses and have enough votes to override a veto by Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who signed a marriage law in 2009. Conservative lawmakers could seek to pass “a repeal through the legislature, or send a constitutional amendment to voters in 2012.” At least four draft bills have already been filed, including two from Rep. David Bates (R) which would “return the marriage law to exactly what it was four years ago” “but also has a caveat so marriages performed the past year would remain legal.” Meanwhile, the Let New Hampshire Vote group is also pushing for “a constitutional amendment to take up a vote on the law in 2012.”


– MINNESOTA: Social conservatives are pressuring Republicans to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages in the state. On Friday, the Minnesota Family Council will host a marriage amendment course for legislators. Last week, members of the new Republican majority blocked a rules amendment “that would have made balancing Minnesota’s budget the House’s top priority this session” and made it more difficult for conservatives to purse social legislation.

– WYOMING: State law already defines marriage as a union between a man and woman, but recognizes marriages performed in other states. Republicans are sponsoring legislation that would “prohibit Wyoming from recognizing same-sex marriages and specify that “no court in Wyoming would have jurisdiction over same-sex marriage.” Governor Matt Mead, a Republican, “campaigned on a platform that included favoring defining marriage as only between a man and a woman” and said he would consider signing such a bill into law. Rep. Cathy Connolly, a Democrat who is a lesbian and an opponent of the measure, will introduce two bills to legalize same-sex marriages and establish civil unions. The marriage bill would change existing Wyoming law’s definition of marriage from a civil contract “between a male and a female person” to a contract between “two natural persons.”

– IOWA: Lawmakers have already announced they’ll introduce a resolution that will begin the process of placing a marriage referendum on the ballot and say they have enough support in “the Republican-controlled House to win passage.” Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has promised to block the effort in the Senate. Former gubernatorial candidate Vander Plaats is also fundraising “towards efforts to force an impeachment or resignation of the remaining four high court justices,” an effort that is not supported by Governor-elect Terry Branstad (R-IA).

– NEW MEXICO: Last week, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King issued an opinion arguing that the state should recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Supporters of marriage cheered the decision, but conceded that it would not likely change state law, given Governor Susanna Martinez’s opposition to same-sex marriage. Now, some fear that King’s opinion may actually galvanize opponents to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. “’People are energized,’ said Sharer, who repeatedly, over the past decade, has pushed legislation defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The lawmaker said he had planned to reintroduce the so-called Defense of Marriage Act even before King’s office issued the opinion.” There are currently 34 Democrats and 36 Republicans in the New Mexico House and 27 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the Senate.