State marriage amendment and gay rights: New dilemmas

Posted: Oct 24, 2006 8:01 PM
State marriage amendment and gay rights: New dilemmas

This week I'm speaking at a National Press Club event sponsored by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association about the coming vote on state marriage amendments.

Here's a sneak preview:

On Nov. 7, eight states will vote on state marriage amendments that define marriage as the union of husband and wife, and also confine the legal benefits of marriage to married couples (i.e., no government-created civil unions). Twenty states have already passed such amendments, with around 60 percent to 80 percent voter approval.

This time around, gay rights groups have grown excited about the prospect of knocking down one or more of these amendments. Three states in particular are in play: Wisconsin, Arizona and South Dakota, each of which has had polls in recent months suggesting the state marriage amendment may be in trouble. (Amendments in Tennessee, Idaho and South Carolina will likely pass by wide margins. In Virginia, 53 percent of likely voters tell pollsters they approve of the state marriage amendment, despite a vigorous campaign for its defeat. In Colorado, gay groups have focused less on opposing the state marriage amendment than on passing a ballot initiative creating civil unions for gay couples.)

For example, two polls in Arizona showed voters opposed to the state marriage amendment, and a South Dakota poll showed voters defeating the amendment by 49 percent to 41 percent. (Other polls in each state suggest wildly different results). Defeating a marriage amendment in either or both of two such red states would be an amazing landmark victory for gay groups.

What do we make of the political situation? Let me begin with the bad news for gay marriage advocates: I predict all eight state marriage amendments will pass.

Nonetheless, the margin of victory in the states that gay marriage advocates have chosen to contest will be narrower than in the past. The good news from their perspective (and expect to hear it trumpeted loudly) is that gay marriage advocates have hit upon a political formula that influences voters at least somewhat.

Here's more pesky bad news: That strategy has almost nothing to do with increasing support for gay marriage. Campaigns in Arizona, Wisconsin and Virginia have largely abandoned marriage itself, and focused instead on generating opposition to domestic partnership provisions. "Why Take Away Health Care?" is the slogan of choice in Arizona, while in Virginia, opponents have marshaled an impressive array of highly credentialed legal experts to advance the improbable argument that the state marriage amendment will prevent unmarried opposite-sex couples from executing private contracts, receiving domestic violence protections or receiving visitation rights. (Virginia's state attorney general recently issued a legal opinion: "I can find no legal basis for the proposition that passage of the marriage amendment will limit or infringe upon the ordinary civil and legal rights of unmarried Virginians.")

I predict another piece of good news for gay rights groups: Colorado will pass domestic partnership legislation. That victory in Colorado suggests a possible new strategy for gay rights groups: Stop promoting gay marriage and start vigorously advocating for civil unions.

Doing so would create a powerful new wedge issue on their side, substantially separating Catholics from evangelicals, and moderates from harder-core religious conservatives. It's an obvious winning political strategy.

But here's the problem for gay rights groups. Civil union initiatives substantially undercut public support for gay marriage. The Human Rights Campaign's own latest poll shows that, when offered a choice of civil unions, only 21 percent of Americans continue to support gay marriage.

After vigorously denouncing civil unions as a despised "separate but equal" insult, can gay rights groups switch course and invest their time and resources in passing civil union laws that offer their people "second-class citizenship"?

Interesting times ahead.