Gay activists also could reach one of their biggest goals: a first-ever victory at the ballot box.
All of the states involve legislatures or voter initiatives in what is shaping up to be the busiest year yet in the political battle over marriage's definition -- even more so than 2004. During that year, 13 of 13 states voted to amend their constitutions to define traditional marriage during a year that saw a social conservative wave. But no legislature in 2004 was threatening to pass a gay "marriage" bill, as is the case this year.
Washington is one of those states.
"Ultimately the people will decide on marriage ," said Joseph Backholm, executive director of the conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington, the state currently in the spotlight. "And in 31 out of 31 states, they've voted not to redefine marriage, and we don't expect that Washington will be any different."
Democratic-controlled legislatures in Washington, Maryland and New Jersey are set to consider gay "marriage" bills, while Maine citizens are set to vote on a gay "marriage" referendum in November. If those four states redefine marriage, it would provide gay activists with a milestone: same-sex "marriage" would be legal in 10 states.
But conservatives -- who warn that religious liberty will take a hit if those bills pass -- also could win in each of those states. Washington and Maryland allow citizens to place recently enacted laws directly on the ballot, and New Jersey's governor has threatened to veto that state's bill while also urging it to be placed before voters. Elsewhere, North Carolina and Minnesota citizens will consider constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman. In New Hampshire, the Republican-controlled legislature is poised to vote on a bill that would reverse that state's gay "marriage" law. When including Maine, voters in at least six states could have their say on marriage.
All total, the action in the states could make gay "marriage" a major presidential campaign topic.
" already shaping up to be a 'make or break' year for marriage in America," Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a traditional group, wrote in an email to supporters.
For the moment, all eyes are on Washington state, where Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire announced in early January her support for a gay "marriage" bill and where the state House and Senate apparently have the votes to pass it. Adding to momentum for the bill, some of the nation's top companies based in the Pacific Northwest -- Microsoft, Nike and Starbucks -- have endorsed it. Unlike its border state of Oregon, Washington does not have a constitutional amendment protecting the traditional definition of marriage.
Voters, though, will make the final decision in Washington. If it is signed into law, opponents will have 90 days to gather about 150,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. The petition drive likely will be successful: In 2009, conservative groups successfully placed on the ballot Referendum 71, which attempted to overturn a domestic partnerships law that granted gay couples all the legal benefits of marriage, minus the name. Voters retained the law, 53-47 percent. This year's gay "marriage" bill is even more controversial.
The purpose of marriage, Backholm said, is not individual happiness and governmental benefits.
"The purpose is a recognition of the fact that children come from heterosexual sex and that we want to unite the parents of those children to each other and parents to their children as often as possible," Backholm said. "The purpose of marriage is to create the greatest likelihood that children will be raised by their mother and father."
Despite what supporters of gay "marriage" argue, mothers and fathers are not "interchangeable and replaceable," Backholm said.
Washington is the latest example of gay activists using civil unions or domestic partnerships as a stepping stone to pushing for gay "marriage." That happened in several other states, including Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, used his January State of the State address to call for the legislature to pass civil unions.
Traditionalists warn the legalization of gay "marriage" would have a widespread negative impact on society, affecting the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, the religious liberty of private businesses and curriculum in elementary schools.
Following is a 2012 state-by-state overview of the marriage political battle:
Maryland: One year after seeing a gay "marriage" bill die in the House of Delegates, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley has made a bill one of his priorities this year. A bill passed the Senate in 2011 but did not receive a vote in the House, partially because of opposition from black pastors. Democrats control both chambers. Even if the bill is signed into law this year, Maryland citizens could collect signatures and place the issue on the ballot.
New Jersey: Leaders in the Democratic-controlled legislature have made a gay "marriage" bill one of their top priorities, even though Republican Gov. Chris Christie has vowed a veto. "We are going to send this to the governor's desk somehow," Senate Democratic leader Loretta Weinberg told the Associated Press, which reported the bill does not have veto-proof margins. Christie says he wants the issue to be placed on the ballot.
Maine: Three years after Maine voters rejected a gay "marriage" law, 53-47 percent, gay activists in the state are set to place the issue back on the ballot. They've collected enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot and are hopeful they can make the state the first where voters embrace gay "marriage."
New Hampshire: The Republican-controlled House and Senate have veto-proof margins, and they'll need them in order to get a bill overturning the state's gay "marriage" law past Democratic Gov. John Lynch. Lynch signed that bill in 2009 when Democrats were in charge, but Republicans took back control during the 2010 election. The compromise bill would reverse the law but allow existing "marriages" to remain intact while putting civil unions back in place. Lynch is certain to veto it.
Minnesota: Voters in November will consider a constitutional amendment that says "only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota." Conservatives say the amendment is needed: a lawsuit that would legalize "gay marriage" is making its way through state court. A majority of states -- 29 -- already have similar amendments. For information, visit www.MinnesotaForMarriage.com.
North Carolina: Voters in the Tar Heel State will get a chance May 8 to define marriage as between a man and a woman. All four states that border North Carolina already have constitutional marriage amendments. The amendment states that "marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State." The amendment also would prohibit New Jersey-style civil unions that grant all the legal benefits of marriage, without the name. For information, visit www.VoteForMarriageNC.com
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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