BALTIMORE — With momentum building in several states to give same-sex couples the right to marry, and with legislators and voters alike rallying to their side, supporters of gay marriage feel good about 2012. But along with gains, there could be setbacks, and it's far from clear how the issue will play in a presidential election year.
Gay rights supporters won a huge victory last year when New York state legalized gay marriage with bipartisan support, doubling overnight the number of same-sex couples who could marry. Four states — Illinois, Hawaii, Delaware and Rhode Island — enacted civil union laws, giving gay couples many of the same rights and protections afforded by marriage.
Currently, six states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage, and Maryland, Washington state, New Jersey and Maine could next join the list. However, there are still more than two dozen states with voter-approved constitutional amendments that ban gay marriage, and voters in Minnesota and North Carolina will decide this year whether to enact similar prohibitions.
On Sunday, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, made a full endorsement of same-sex marriage at a conference in Baltimore of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which works to promote grassroots activism.
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"Other states have found a way to protect religious liberty, religious freedom and to protect rights equally, and it is time for Maryland to do the same," O'Malley told the thousands of gay rights activists gathered, "and that's why this week we proposed a civil marriage law in the General Assembly of Maryland and we seek to get it done this year."
In Washington state, Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, said in early January that she supports same-sex marriage after struggling with the issue for several years. The effort appears to have enough support in the legislature after a key lawmaker switched sides.
"I have sorted it out in my head and in my heart," said Gregoire, who's Catholic, when she made the announcement.
In New Jersey, the legislature has the votes to approve gay marriage, but Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, told reporters at a news conference last week that he'd veto the bill and issued a public statement saying voters should decide the issue. Legislators may have enough votes to override a veto, but voters still could have the final word.
Gay marriage opponents point out that voters have rejected it every time it's been brought to the ballot. And assuming that Washington and Maryland pass bills allowing gay marriage, opponents almost certainly will collect enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot.
"Thirty-one states have voted on the definition of marriage and everyone voted to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman," Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in a statement. "Not only will we mount a successful referendum campaign, we will hold every Washington legislator accountable for his or her vote."
Many gay marriage opponents say that legalizing same-sex marriages redefines marriage and that it's best for children to be raised in a two-parent household that includes a mother and a father, even though research has shown that children with same-sex parents are no worse off than children of opposite-sex parents. Many opponents also object to same-sex marriage for religious reasons, and they don't think that gay marriage laws do enough to protect churches, officials and individuals who oppose gay unions.
But gay marriage supporters say that this year could be a turning point for them.
"The more Americans have been talking about who gay families are, the margin of defeat for freedom to marry has gotten smaller and smaller over the years," said Evan Wolfson, an attorney and the founder of Freedom to Marry, a gay rights organization in New York, who attended the Baltimore conference. He said that as gay and lesbian couples tell their stories, elected officials and voters come over to their side.
"It used to be not that long ago that anti-gay opponents used to say that gay people getting married is absurd, it will never happen. Then it happened. And support grew," Wolfson said in an interview. "Arguments are diminishing because hearts and minds have changed."
Gay marriage supporters would like in particular to change the heart and mind of President Barack Obama, who hasn't yet fully embraced gay marriage. But he has said his views are "evolving," and last year his Justice Department stopped defending a 1996 law that bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage and has urged Congress to repeal it.
None of the leading Republican candidates for president supports same-sex marriage, but the issue isn't prominent in a campaign more focused on the economy.
A Gallup poll in May showed that 53 percent of Americans supported gay marriage, in a dramatic shift from 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry and 59 percent of Americans favored a federal constitutional ban.
The states reflect the broader trend: Half of Marylanders support gay marriage, according to a Washington Post poll this week. According to a University of Washington poll in October, 55 percent of Washington state residents said they'd vote yes to uphold a gay marriage law.
"That's exactly why it continues to happen. People see it with their own eyes," Wolfson said. "Families are helped, and no one's hurt."
Sometimes it takes a few tries. The Maine legislature approved a gay marriage bill in 2009, and then voters rejected it. This year, gay marriage supporters have collected enough signatures to bring the issue back to the ballot.
In Maryland, gay marriage opponents scuttled a bill last year, and they're ready for a fight over the new effort. Last week, Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley angered gay marriage opponents by calling them "cowards." She subsequently apologized.
It may wind up fueling opponents. Last year, the National Organization for Marriage formed a political action committee to support Democrats who vote against gay marriage and to oppose Republicans who support it.
"We'll challenge Republicans in primaries, and we will take on Democrats in the general election and make sure that their constituents know they tried to abandon the most important social institution ever devised without voters being given a say in the matter," Brown, the National Organization for Marriage president, said in a statement.
On Monday, the Maryland Marriage Alliance sponsored a rally on the steps of the statehouse in Annapolis to protest the gay marriage bill.
There could be other potential setbacks for gay marriage supporters. The New Hampshire legislature approved same-sex marriage in 2009 but now is considering a bill that would repeal it. Wolfson said the repeal effort doesn't mean that voters have changed their minds so much as conservative lawmakers who oppose the law were elected for other reasons.
"No one in New Hampshire can point to a single negative effect," he said. "It's not like the gays have used up all the marriage licenses."
No matter what happens, Washington state Rep. Laurie Jinkins said that when people who may be ambivalent about gay marriage hear gay and lesbian couples talk about their families, it causes them to think about their own marriages. Jinkins, a public health administrator, lives in Tacoma with her partner of 20 years and their 9-year-old son. She said these conversations helped convince Gregoire that she couldn't deny the recognition she and her husband have to gay couples and their families.
"The most important thing we can do is tell our story," Jinkins said in an interview. "Every person who gets out there to tell their story moves innumerable people toward us."
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