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The Battle Over Gay Marriage Set To Go Nationwide

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Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) announced Wednesday that she will put forward legislation on Monday that would legalize gay marriage in Washington, saying that "it's time, it's the right thing to do, and I will introduce a bill to do it."

Washington may be the latest state to push for gay marriage, but in other states gay rights advocates have already been pursuing marriage equality for some time, in efforts that will likely culminate sometime in 2012.

So where are the biggest battlegrounds?

  • Last September, North Carolina's legislature approved a ballot amendment that will let voters decide in the May primary whether to ban same-sex marriage in the state's Constitution.
  • Tami Fitzgerald, Executive Director of NC Values Coalition (which includes groups like the Christian Action League and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM)), explained in a statement that "the marriage amendment ensures that voters and not activist judges will decide the definition of marriage in our state. Marriage as the union of one man and one woman has served North Carolina well since before we were a state, and it's time we respected the institution of marriage enough to protect it in our state constitution."

  • Minnesota has its own vote on a constitutional ban coming up in November, though, like North Carolina, gay marriage is still not legal in the state.
  • Gia Vitali, the deputy campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, told TPM they have over 120 organizations that are working on an "aggressive grassroots organizing campaign" against the the amendment, including phone banks, TV and radio ads, and even house parties. She said that though the polls show Minnesotans are divided about banning gay marriage, "no poll this early on can predict defeat or victory."

    Minnesota for Marriage, on the other hand, called on its supporters recently "to set aside a special time this Sunday to pray for the passage of the Minnesota Marriage Protection amendment, commit to strengthening our own marriages, and then get active in the campaign!"

  • Maryland is looking to duplicate the success of New York's marriage equality legislation, after its own bill stalled before the end of the last legislative session. The bill initially got through the state Senate, but supporters in the House of Delegates pulled it when they realized they didn't have the votes to get it passed. Maryland's bill has since picked up some momentum, thanks to New York's marriage equality law and the decision by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to throw his weight behind it.
  • The fight is expected to shake out in the state legislature in the coming weeks -- particularly in the House of Delegates, where around 10 delegates are still undecided. Some of the fence-sitters are pushing for a set of carve-outs that exempt religious institutions -- also similar to what New York put in its own law -- which, if implemented, could give the bill the final push it needs to pass.

    Though some polling shows voters are split in Maryland as well, Kevin Nix, Campaign Media Director for the Human Rights Campaign, told TPM that the bill has "the momentum heading into next week's legislative session. Governor O'Malley has made a bill that protects religious freedom and promotes marriage equality one of his legislative priorities."

  • In Maine, proponents of gay marriage have collected enough signatures -- over 100,000 -- to get a measure on the November ballot that would legalize gay marriage. But they won't decide whether they will actually put the measure on the ballot until they can gauge whether there is enough support for it to pass. The state has gone back-and-forth about marriage equality since 2009, when voters overturned a state law that legalized gay marriage.
  • New Hampshire has the opposite problem, with state legislators planning to convene in the next few weeks about legislation that would repeal the state's existing marriage equality law. Members of the state House will likely take up the legislation shortly after the presidential primary on January 10. "This vote has national ramifications. If we're able to restore traditional marriage here, it will be the only time anywhere ever that a legislature has reversed its position," Republican state Rep. David Bates, who proposed the repeal bill, told the Telegraph.
  • The Nashua Telegraph reports that according to a recent poll by the UNH Survey Center, 62% percent of voters in New Hampshire oppose the repeal bill, while only 27% support it.

  • Despite its successful marriage equality law passed in 2011 -- and a reported 14% uptick in the number of marriage licenses issued by the state thanks to gay marriages -- the fight in New York isn't completely over.
  • NOM is planning to spend around $2 million in New York on a "Let The People Vote" campaign to get a ballot referendum that would overturn the law. But the group is also hoping to deliver a day of reckoning to the four Republican lawmakers who provided the crucial votes needed for the bill to pass.

    State Sens. Mark Grisanti, James Alesi, Stephen Saland and Roy McDonald, Brian Brown of NOM told TPM, "betrayed New York and betrayed marriage." Which is why NOM is pouring tens of thousands of dollars into fighting against their campaigns for re-election. "I have absolutely no doubt that once the constituents know [about the gay marriage votes], they're not going to be re-elected," Brown said.

And then you've got the courts. In California, the legal battle over Proposition 8, the state's constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage, is expected to receive a crucial ruling any day now. Proponents of Prop 8 have appealed to the Ninth Circuit over Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling that the law is unconstitutional, arguing that Walker's decision should be vacated because he is gay. The Ninth Circuit will soon rule on a lower court's rejection of this argument, and eventually on Walker's Prop 8 ruling on the merits as well.

The gay rights group Love Honor Cherish, in the meantime, has been cleared to begin collecting signatures for a repeal of Prop 8. It would have to collect 807,615 voter signatures by May 14th in order to qualify for the November ballot.

Then there's the federal law the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and excludes same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits. The Department of Justice said in July that it would no longer defend DOMA in court because it is unconstitutional, and recently joined a lawsuit against the federal government by a female employee of the Ninth Circuit whose wife was denied federal health care benefits.

In another case, three lawsuits (two by the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and one by the state of Massachusetts) against DOMA were merged and are awaiting a decision by the First Circuit. This case could be the first DOMA challenge to make it to the Supreme Court.

On a separate front, 33 Democratic Senators are pushing the Respect for Marriage Act -- which would repeal DOMA altogether, and in November passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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