BY ABBY GOODNOUGH
The New York Times
They had far more money, ground troops and political support, and geography was on their side, given that New England has been more accepting of same-sex marriage than any other region of the country. Yet gay-rights advocates suffered a crushing loss in Maine when voters decided Tuesday to repeal the state’s new law allowing gays and lesbians to wed, setting back a movement that had made remarkable progress nationally this year.
Maine became the 31st state to block same-sex marriage through a public referendum, a result that will force supporters to rethink their national strategy at a crucial time for the movement. With 84 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday, the repeal proposal had 53 percent of the vote, even though polls had indicated the race was a dead heat.
This year three other states — Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont — joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in allowing same-sex marriage, but only through court rulings and legislative action. Maine, with its libertarian leanings, had seemed to offer an excellent chance of reversing the long national trend of voters rejecting marriage equality at the ballot box.
Some said the loss was a sign that the state-by-state approach favored by the largest gay-rights groups had failed and that the focus should move to reversing the federal ban on same-sex marriage, which Congress can reverse without voter approval. Others argued that the defeat only reinforced the need to keep winning grassroots support.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national gay-rights group Freedom to Marry, said the loss in Maine underscores “the fact that we need to continue those conversations and make ourselves visible as families in communities.”
He added, “It shows we have just not done it long enough and deep enough, even in a place like Maine.”
But Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, the conservative Christian group that is leading the charge against same-sex marriage around the country, read the outcome differently.
“It interrupts the story line that is being manufactured, that suggests the culture has shifted on gay marriage and the fight is over,” she said. “Maine is one of the most secular states in the nation, it’s socially liberal, they had a three-year head start to build their organization and they outspent us two to one. If they can’t win there, it really does tell you the majority of Americans are not on board with this gay marriage thing.”
The next battlefields are New Jersey and New York, whose Democratic governors were pressing lawmakers to pass same-sex marriage bills by the end of the year, and California, where voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage last November. Gay-rights groups there will likely seek a ballot measure reversing the ban by 2012; a federal lawsuit challenging the prohibition is scheduled to go to trial in January, and is expected to make its way to the Supreme Court.
Richard Socarides, who advised President Bill Clinton on gay issues, said such federal litigation was the best hope for advancing same-sex marriage at this point.
“The state-by-state strategy that looked clever a few years ago has run its course,” he said. “The states that were easy to get have been gotten.”
In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine’s loss on Tuesday to Christopher Christie, a Republican who opposes same-sex marriage, dealt another potential blow to the movement. Mr. Christie has vowed to veto any same-sex marriage bill that reaches his desk; however, Mr. Corzine could still sign a same-sex marriage bill into law if the legislature approves it before January.
The city council in Washington, D.C., also appears poised to pass a same-sex marriage law, although opponents are seeking a referendum that would ask voters to ban it.
A more long-term, complex question is whether gay-rights supporters can reverse the constitutional bans on same-sex marriage in some 30 states that have enacted them since 2000. The outcome in Maine reinforces voters’ reluctance to endorse it, which national polls echo, too, though the gap is narrowing. And supporters acknowledge they would much rather avoid ballot questions.
“They tend to marginalize the group that is being targeted and inflame people’s passions in a way that is at best divisive and at worst terribly cruel,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, marriage project director for Lambda Legal, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles. “Our founders did not intend to allow a majority to take basic rights from a minority.”
Still, a group in Oregon announced Monday that it would seek a repeal of that state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, perhaps as soon as 2012. Oregon voters approved the ban in 2004, and gay-rights groups have been quietly building support for a repeal.
But in general, supporters are more likely to focus on states with statutory bans on gay marriage, which legislatures can reverse without voter approval. One such state is Washington, where preliminary returns in this year’s election showed voters approving an expansion of a domestic partnership law that would give gay couples more of the state-granted rights that married couples get. “The effort there has been a steady building of support in the legislature,” Ms. Pizer said. “It’s unclear when they will ascertain there’s enough public support to change the marriage law, but it’s been a gradual process that will continue.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage, led by the National Organization for Marriage, which contributed more than $1 million to the Maine repeal effort, said the outcome there should make lawmakers in other states nervous about endorsing same-sex marriage.
“We’re already hearing in both New York and New Jersey that they are noticing what’s happening here,” Ms. Gallagher said. “Do other politicians really want to enter this particular culture war given all the stuff they are going to have to defend in the next election?”
The National Organization for Marriage is seeking to recruit two million opponents of same-sex marriage to “deploy wherever is necessary,” Ms. Gallagher said, and provide a steady stream of donations. After New York and New Jersey, she said, the organization will look for other states in which to push constitutional bans.
A state ethics commission in Maine is investigating whether Ms. Gallagher’s group violated the state’s campaign finance laws by failing to disclose its donors, and Ms. Pizer, of Lambda Legal, said that if the commission finds a violation occurred, gay-rights groups will use it as ammunition in the national same-sex marriage movement.
She said gay-rights supporters would also have to hone their strategy for fighting the claim that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to children learning about it at school. Leaders of the repeal effort in Maine used that claim successfully, as did those in California last year.
“Sadly and unsurprisingly there’s a consistent theme that somehow gay people are a threat to children,” Ms. Pizer said. “And it’s hard to prove one’s nonthreatening, honest humanity with a soundbite. You prove it through relationships, and relationships take time.”
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