May 28, 2013

Majority may still rule against gay marriage

With bans enshrined in constitutions, opposition states may be difficult if not impossible to sway.


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Opposition to gay marriage remains strong in states such as Texas where dozens of proponents attended a February 2001 rally at the Capitol in Austin in support of legislation that would limit marriage to between a man and a woman.

Associated Press file photo

An eventual vote could be a close one. A recent poll found 49 percent support changing the constitution to allow same-sex marriage with 42 percent opposed. Nine percent are undecided.

Even in other states where the public is closely divided, the amendment process is just one hurdle, and not even the most difficult one. There's also legislative reality.

In Wisconsin and Virginia, for example, constitutional amendments to allow same-sex marriage require successive legislative approvals before voters weigh in. For now, supporters say there's little chance of even preliminary success.

"Virginians are in the right place, unfortunately our House of Delegates is not," said James Parrish, Equality Virginia's executive director. "I personally just don't see the House of Delegates moving."

The situation is similar in Wisconsin. "You have to have legislative support for repeal, which we do not have right now," said Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger. "That's going to be a multi-year and multi-electoral-cycle process."

The staying power of constitutional bans on same-sex marriage harkens back to the debate in many states when the measures were first addressed. To supporters of the bans, they're a bulwark against activist lawmakers and judges and a way to protect the interests of religious groups from laws that would "redefine" marriage.

To gay marriage supporters, the bans make it harder for lawmakers to respond to public opinion.

Minnesota illustrates the difference. The state has had a law banning same-sex marriage since 1997, but last fall voters rejected an effort to make it a constitutional ban. That measure was put on the ballot by the then Republican-controlled legislature.

In November, Democrats retook control, and six months later, lawmakers overturned the state law. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's signature made the change official.

"It definitely proves our point that the constitutional amendment was necessary (to preserve the ban)," said Autumn Leva of Minnesota for Marriage, which campaigned in favor of the measure last year. "That's why we were pushing for the constitutional amendment."

The National Organization for Marriage, too, called the turnaround in Minnesota a warning sign for other states.

"The recent actions in Minnesota should serve as a wakeup call to other states that have not yet passed Marriage Protection Amendments," Brian Brown, the organization's president, said after the Minnesota vote. "If you do not protect marriage proactively in your constitution, the powerful and wealthy gay marriage lobby will target your state for their next campaign to change your laws."

In Nevada, same-sex marriage supporters face a stiffer challenge, even though the state has seen a significant shift since voters approved a constitutional ban in 2002. Democrats now control the legislature, and LGBT-friendly measures, like a bill to allow harsher sentences for crimes against transgender victims, have gained currency with Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

But there, like in many other states, the system is designed to slow-walk change. The process for amending the state's constitution requires successful votes in two legislative sessions before a statewide vote. The earliest the state could repeal its ban would be Election Day 2016.

"It's frustrating," said Nevada state Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, a Democrat who came out as gay on the Senate floor while his colleagues were debating the repeal amendment.

"You look at things as momentum, and momentum is on our side," he said. "We would like to ride that wave."

The Nevada Senate eventually approved a measure to allow same-sex marriage, and it's on its way to passage in the Assembly. If it passes again in 2015, the issue would head to voters the following year.

How that vote would turn out is anyone's guess. Atkinson is optimistic, even as he wishes the process could move more quickly. "I wish we could just go ahead and do it," he said. "The good thing is I won't have to come out again."


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