Gay-marriage advocates, emboldened by a landmark Supreme Court ruling, are enlisting students in New Jersey, black pastors in Illinois and Filipinos in Hawaii to try to convince legislators that history is on their side.
The three states, which already allow civil unions, are the next battlegrounds in an all-out push by civil rights coalitions to legalize same-sex marriage and expand on last month’s victory in the nation’s highest court. The justices, taking up gay nuptials for the first time, struck down a U.S. law that denied federal benefits to same-sex married couples and cleared the way for weddings to resume in California.
"We’re really preparing to be in a position to capitalize on all the momentum we have," said Marc Solomon, national campaign director for New York-based Freedom to Marry. "We want to win the next eight to 10 states as quickly as possible."
By allowing states to continue to define marriage, the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision overturning a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act paved the way for gay-rights groups to seek change in state legislatures, courts and ballot boxes. The clash with organizations opposed to gay marriage is likely to spread to more than a dozen states before long.
Gay-rights advocates have already proved their fundraising prowess and ability to build broad coalitions, winning the right to marry in seven states in the last year alone.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex partners to wed, while 35 have anti-marriage laws or constitutional amendments on the books. Other states offer some protection for these couples.
While polls show a majority of Americans favor legalizing gay marriage, there are divisions among the states.
"Now we have a very uneven set of rules and laws around the country," said Brian Powell, a professor of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington. "The Supreme Court’s decision was a compromise that gave states the permission to do what they want — but that compromise in the end isn’t a very tenable one."
On the federal level, a Senate bill that would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity was approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on July 10. It’s the first time in more than a decade that such a measure moved out of committee.
The Supreme Court decision put on the defensive same-sex marriage opponents who are also working to advance their position.
"By the nature of the situation, we’ve been on defense because most every state has already defined marriage as between a man and a woman," said Frank Schubert, national political director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage. "We’re typically fighting proposals to change this."
In states where legislators are unlikely to consider gay marriage, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, same-sex marriage supporters are looking to the courts. They’re filing motions citing the Supreme Court’s decision striking down a portion of DOMA.
"It’s given us a very clear tool and a very effective one in all of our work, both in front of legislatures and in front of courts," Camilla Taylor, senior staff attorney for New York-based Lambda Legal, said of the high court’s decision.
Courts in New Mexico, New Jersey, Illinois, North Carolina and Virginia are also expected to consider lawsuits that test the constitutionality of state laws that don’t extend the same rights to gays as they do to heterosexual married couples.
In Illinois, New Jersey and Hawaii, gay-rights defenders are working to advance measures in legislatures legalizing same-sex marriage.
"Illinois has civil unions, but about 1,038 federal protections they could get with marriage don’t apply with civil unions," said Lynne Bowman, a regional field director with the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign. "The Supreme Court decision is changing the conversation and the energy for some of the folks who were, and still are, sitting on the fence."
The Human Rights Campaign hired a pastor to organize in Chicago’s African-American faith community. It’s also enlisting a campaign director and formalizing a coalition of local civil rights and political groups and businesses to lobby lawmakers to consider a bill legalizing same-sex marriage when the legislature reconvenes late this year. Such a measure passed the state Senate in February but awaits a vote in the House.
A similar effort is underway in Hawaii. The group is looking for a campaign manager to work with its 5,000 members and a coalition of 80 organizations, including Filipino-Americans, to push for a special session of the Legislature to consider a bill legalizing gay marriage.
"We’re getting people to tell their stories about why it’s important to move quickly and decisively," said Tony Wagner, a regional field director for the HRC. "We want to move the governor and the Legislature to where they feel like it’s the right thing to do."
The state Legislature didn’t vote on several marriage-equality bills before it adjourned on May 7. Following the Supreme Court rulings, lawmakers said they were considering reconvening earlier than the next scheduled meeting date of January.
In New Jersey, gay-rights groups are engaged in a campaign involving unions, churches, businesses and university students. They’re seeking to connect with voters and urge municipalities to pass resolutions in support of marriage, said David Turley, a senior regional field organizer for the Human Rights Campaign.
Coalition volunteers are calling constituents in key districts this week encouraging them to ask their assemblyman or senator to overturn a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Christie of a bill passed by the Democratic-led legislature.
The gay-marriage bill passed 24-16 in the Senate and 42-33 in the Assembly. An override would require 27 votes in the Senate, where Democrats rule 24-16, and 54 in the Assembly, where they dominate 48-32.
"It’s a matter of re-engaging and reactivating our strong coalition across the state," Turley said. "There are glaring inequalities and loopholes in rights and benefits given to New Jersey couples."