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The Gay State-by-State Marriage Race? (Second of Two Parts)

by Cody Lyon

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday June 12, 2008

Whither California, the nation? That was the question asked in the first of this two-part series on the state of gay marriage in America.

Evan Wolfson, the civil rights attorney and executive director of Freedom to Marry, has been as instrumental as anyone in furthering the cause of gay marriage in this country. Wolfson doesn't buy the argument about a social conservative backlash against gay marriage. He believes such fears are unfounded and ill defined. Instead, he sees there are two distinct and competing visions of America at play in this battle.

"Opponents of marriage equality have the anti-choice, anti equality agenda and we have the vision of a nation living up to its promise of equality guaranteed by the constitution," he said.

If the leaders of that highly organized and well funded opposition to same sex marriage in California is any indication of that competing vision, Wolfson appears to be correct.

As was widely expected, on June 3, California Secretary of State Debra Bown confirmed that marriage equality opponents had successfully gathered over one million signatures which allows placement of a proposition on the November ballot that if passed, would overturn the California Supreme court decision.

Leading the local opposition to the court decision are a pair of Southern California businessmen, Howard Ahmanson, owner of Fieldstead & Co and Christian radio magnate Ed Atsinger. Both are evangelical Christians according to a May 27 report from Capital Weekly, a newspaper that covers California's state government.

But a virtual who's who of familiar right wing social conservative organizations have also converged on California and are making the overturning of the California court decision a priority. "There are a number of national religious right groups that are lending their resources to this effort," said Peter Montgomery, spokesperson at the People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington DC.

"Many of these groups have their own networks of pastors and churches that agree with them on a number of social issues, and one of those happens to be gay rights," he said.

Montgomery describes a coalition of like-minded individuals and well funded national organizations like 'Focus on the Family," "Coral Ridge" and "Concerned Women of America," which have swooped into the state at the behest of local social conservatives and leaders. They then re-brand themselves with a new, more socially benign public identity, which in California's case, is "Protect Marriage." Later, they created an easy-to-find and navigate website, The site's easily digestible information and fundraising apparatus is there to solicit donations from anyone not already connected to rightwing organizations.

Under the auspices of marriage "protection" the shadow group engages in grassroots efforts in communities, airwaves, other media outlets and churches throughout the state. Montgomery describes a similar scenario taking place in Florida where a similar ballot initiative will be voted on this November.

Although the efforts by social conservatives presents what might be seen as daunting obstacles, Evan Wolfson, like Brad Sears believes this sort of battleground is the difficult path to full marriage equality. "The classic pattern of civil rights advancement in America is patchwork," he said.

Mid-Atlantic Battleground
New York may well remove exclusion from marriage as early as next year, having already agreed to recognize marriages from out of state. New Jersey will likely move to full marriage; the State Legislature passed a civil union bill at the behest of a court ruling, but there seems to be near-universal agreement that it is not fulfilling the court's mandate of a "separate but equal" institution to marriage. Before this year is out, a Connecticut court decision like California's may mandate the same thing-full marriage equality.

The bi-coastal inroads towards justice are a long tedious process. On the surface, such a tedious, state-by-state battle may not be the most pleasant way to get there, but that is the way advances in civil rights usually happen.

When asked to look into a crystal ball, Wolfson remained optimistic.

"By this time next year, as many as three, four or five states will have probably ended exclusion from marriage which means we may have up to a third of the nation's population living in states where same sex couples are marrying alongside different sex couples," he predicted.

"That creates a context in which there will be more progress state by state building eventually to a national resolution in favor of equality," he said.

Wolfson says that as more people see same sex couples marrying and as they realize that no one losing out as a result, the movement towards marriage equality will gain generational momentum.

Other observers and activists agree. Despite the clearly well-organized and -funded efforts of opposing forces, they say that justice absent partisanship along with changing public opinions will prevail on this issue. "The California decision wasn't a partisan issue, it wasn't an activist court, this was a court appointed by primarily republican governors," said Toni Broaddus, executive director of Equality Federation, the national alliance of state based LGBT advocacy organizations.

"We know that the California court is one of the most cited supreme courts in the country in terms of other state court decisions," said Broaddus. The California decision sets the stage for other courts to step up and do their jobs and apply the law fairly for all citizens. She is optimistic that the similar pending court decisions will be handed down any day now in Connecticut and Iowa.

"In California, we see the potential for a shift in the way people think about this issue," said Broaddus. Supporters of marriage equality are optimistic that California voters will confirm the court's decision. They point to a May 28 Field Poll that found a sea of change in public opinion over same sex marriage.

A Sea Change in Attitudes
That poll, for the first time, said roughly half of those surveyed now support "gay marriage" which would indicate the proposed amendment may in fact face a different electorate than what's been seen in the past in other states. Further, there are clear indications that national attitudes are evolving as well.

"There has been a continued shift of support nationwide towards some sort of relationship recognition," said Dan Hawes, Organizing and Training Director at the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, "which is a pretty dramatic improvement from the political landscape of even just eight years ago,"

In fact, only eight years ago, as many as 65 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage. Flash forward to 2007, when that number dropped by 10 percent to 55 percent, according to a Pew Research Center report entitled, 'Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes'

Still, Hawes stresses that defeating the ballot initiative in California is crucial. "The outcome of this battle is going to impact how things play out across the rest of the country," he said.

Hawes said that the Task Force is currently recruiting and training volunteers to go out into the public in California and explain to everyone why the defeat of this amendment is so important as a matter of civil rights and equality.

But for some observers both within the LGBT community as well as some straight allies, a cloud of quiet worry long ago descended over use of the term marriage and its label as a hot button social and political issue. They would prefer what they see as a more pragmatic approach to civil union equality.

'Marriage' Too Loaded a Word?
They worry that the word "marriage" itself creates an obstacle to a more middle ground approach for some level of official recognition that might bestow the benefits of marriage without inflaming the passionate opposition inflamed by what they see as the potential redefining of an institution much of society still associates with religion and other traditions.

As the Dallas News opined in a May 21 editorial, "The California decision eliminates the middle ground established by domestic partner legislation." The unsigned editorial argued the decision leaps "ahead of evolving social mores" and removes "the issue from democratic debate," thereby setting up the stage for a "backlash that threatens to poison our politics for some time."

To which Dan Hawes of NGLTF pounces arguing that civil unions are not equivalent to marriage. "Only marriage is marriage, and only marriage is able to guarantee that two people in love with each other receive the fundamental protections for their family that any couple, straight or gay, would want and need," he said. "Society does not see civil unions as equivalent to marriage."

Hawes pointed to flaws in the way New Jersey has implemented and enforced its civil unions: "There have been hundreds of cases of discrimination in New Jersey, where employers, hospitals, insurers or local agencies have reportedly not given the same treatment or benefits to civil union couples that they would have given to a married couple."

So the march towards full marriage equality continues.

"What we will see is a handful of states follow Massachusetts and California," said Toni Broaddus.

"We'll have more effective civil union laws and marriage rulings and eventually, we'll reach a tipping point, which we are much closer to today, and once we do, it becomes much more difficult for the federal government to no address this issue," she said. "The reality is, eventually we have to have a system where all families are recognized across all state borders."

Cody Lyon is a New York freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of national daily newspapers and New York weeklies. Lyon also writes a political opinion blog at