It likely will be the busiest year since 2004, when Massachusetts' "gay marriage" law went into effect and 13 states passed marriage amendments. It is legal only in five states and the District of Columbia.
Traditionalists are eyeing victories in Indiana, Minnesota, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, all of which now have legislatures controlled by Republicans, who have generally been friendlier to conservative arguments on marriage. Each of those states could see legislation passed placing constitutional amendments on the ballot defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Elsewhere, New Hampshire's legislature might consider a bill that would reverse its "gay marriage" law, while in Iowa -- where "gay marriage" also is legal -- conservatives will continue to pressure the Democratic-controlled senate to take up a marriage amendment that already passed the GOP house there.
Other states, though, are going in the opposite direction.
Homosexual groups are hoping for gains and are pushing for passage of a civil unions bill in Hawaii -- it likely is headed to the governor soon -- and "gay marriage" bills in Maryland, Rhode Island and New York. Just last month, Illinois' governor signed a bill legalizing civil unions, which grant same-sex couples all the state legal benefits of marriage minus the name.
For the moment, though, the spotlight is on Maryland and Rhode Island, two states where homosexual groups are hopeful that "gay marriage" bills will advance in the coming weeks and make those states the sixth and seventh ones nationally to redefine marriage to include homosexuals. Democrats control the legislatures in each state, and each state has as a governor who supports "gay marriage." Opponents warn that passage of the bills could impact the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, the religious liberty of private businesses, and the curriculum in elementary schools.
The votes figure to be tight. A Rhode Island house committee heard testimony on a bill Feb. 9, a day after a Maryland senate committee heard testimony on that state's bill. Neither committee has voted yet.
Despite what some supporters say, passage in either state is far from inevitable, said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an organization that played a crucial role in defeating "gay marriage" in Maine, California and New York. NOM has launched TV and radio ads in Rhode Island, criticizing independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee and urging legislators to let citizens decide the issue.
"We're going to have a big fight in Rhode Island, and I think that is a top priority for proponents of same-sex marriage. In Maryland, it's also going to be a tough fight," Brown told Baptist Press. "... What they're trying to do is to pass these things as quickly as possible so that they can avoid having all their constituents call them and tell them, 'We don't want you to pass same-sex marriage.' That's clearly the attempt in Rhode Island."
Rhode Island is of primary concern for Brown and other traditionalists because, unlike initiative states such as California -- where voters can gather signatures to place items on the ballot -- citizens would have no direct recourse if the legislature passes the bill. Even if Maryland's legislature passes its, citizens there would be able to collect signatures to place the issue on the ballot in 2012 and potentially overturn the law, similar to what happened in Maine in 2009.
"Lincoln Chaffee is seemingly staging his governorship on this issue in making it priority No. 1 and that is definitely a very serious fight ahead," Brown said.
In Maryland, traditionalists are hoping to defeat the bill in the senate, but it may already have the bare minimum -- 24 votes -- needed to pass. It also will need 29 votes to prevent a filibuster. Some of the bill's supporters -- such as Republican Sen. Allan Kittleman, the lone GOP supporter -- have called it a civil rights issue. Kittleman released a statement noting that his father "joined with others in fighting racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s" and that, similarly, he is joining with supporters of "gay marriage."
Many, though, say linking the issue to civil rights is wrong. Among those is Robert Anderson Jr., pastor of Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, Md.
"We didn't choose to be born black. To be black or African American is not sin," Anderson told Baptist Press. "The fact that we fought for civil rights, we were just fighting for justice for any man, any woman -- regardless of their skin color. To be black is not sinful, but to be homosexual is sinful. Therein lies the difference. To try to create a system and special laws for a group of citizens that are living in immorality and wanting to force all of us to embrace that as if it is morally equivalent, that is wrong.
Anderson added, "Jesus still saves. Homosexuality, lesbianism -- you can still be delivered from it. It's sin, and there's an answer to sin."
New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he plans on making a major push this year for passage of a "gay marriage" bill in his state, although it's unclear if he'll get his way, being that Republicans took control of the state senate after the November elections. Such a bill was defeated in 2009 in the then-Democratic-controlled senate, 38-24.
Approval of a civil unions bill in Hawaii would be a major victory for homosexual groups, less than a year after then-Republican Gov. Linda Lingle -- who was term-limited -- vetoed such a bill. She was replaced by Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who won in November and is a civil unions supporter. Different versions of the bill have passed the House and Senate.
Rick Lazor, pastor of OlaNui Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, said if the bill becomes law, then the next related political or legal battle likely will be "gay marriage." He opposes civil unions.
"I think it will be, but I think these guys may be smart enough to not throw that at us immediately," Lazor told Baptist Press. "The other side could sue and complain that civil unions make gays a lower class in the state. In most other states that now have marriage, it was almost to a name the very people who fought for civil unions then came back and demanded marriage from the same legislators."
But a host of states are moving to prevent marriage from being redefined. State legislatures in North Carolina, Minnesota and Wyoming could place a constitutional marriage amendment on the 2012 ballot, while the Indiana and Pennsylvania legislatures -- it's a lengthier procedure in those two states -- could take the first step toward placing an amendment on the 2014 ballot. Already, 29 states protect the traditional definition of marriage in their constitutions.
"Many of these states would already have passed them had they had direct initiative and referenda," Brown said. "The remaining states have to go through the legislature, which is often a much more difficult task."
Supporters of traditional marriage, he believes, have reason to be optimistic.
"One of the things that proponents of same-sex marriage do is promote this myth of inevitability, and they do this both long-term and short-term, and they do it in every state," he said. "What they try to do is to say, 'This is a done deal, so if you're on the fence you might as well side with us.' That is an attempt to make a myth the reality."
Brown points to the 2009 defeat of a "gay marriage" bill in New York as an example.
"The lead sponsor of the bill said he had votes to pass it, and the day of the vote he lost 38-24," Brown said.
The movements on the state level come as a handful of key legal cases, including the high-profile one related to California Prop 8 -- wind their way through the federal courts toward a potential landmark hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.
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