Almost overnight, gay marriage has again emerged as a prominent national issue, and a series of coming ballot initiatives will test supporters’ and opponents’ sway over voters, lawmakers, courts and presidential candidates.
Less than a day after North Carolina voters amended their constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman, President Barack Obama said that he now thinks gay couples should be able to get married. How that influences the presidential campaign and other state ballot measures on gay marriage isn’t yet clear.
But Obama’s announcement buoyed supporters of same-sex marriage across the country and injected new vigor into opponents. Six states and the District of Columbia allow gay couples to marry, and by the end of the year, there could be three more. And polls show that younger people especially favor gay marriage in increasing numbers.
“2012 is shaping up to be a huge year for marriage equality,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, the communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay rights organization. “While we had the disappointment of North Carolina, the president’s endorsement puts the wind in the sails as we look toward November.”
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Earlier this year, legislatures in Washington state and Maryland passed gay marriage bills; the voters of those states are likely to have the final word in November thanks to efforts to overturn the new laws by referendum. Maine voters will decide whether to reverse a 2009 decision to overturn the state’s law that allows gay marriage. And Minnesotans will decide on a constitutional amendment similar to the one in North Carolina.
“We’ve gone from a place where 10 years ago, gay couples could not marry in any state,” Cole-Schwartz said. “While we may lose some of these battles along the way, there is no doubt where the direction of this larger fight is going.”
A state supreme court decision in 2004 made Massachusetts the first to permit same-sex marriage. In the eight years since, there have been a series of court fights, legislative battles and state ballot measures on the issue.
Opponents of same-sex marriage vowed to use the issue against Obama this year in several swing states he needs to win re-election.
"President Obama has now made the definition of marriage a defining issue in the presidential contest, especially in swing states like Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Nevada," Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in a statement.
Recent polls show that roughly half of Americans now support gay marriage and a clear majority supports some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples. Obama’s Republican presidential rival, Mitt Romney, who opposes gay marriage or civil unions, said he supports some limited benefits for same-sex couples.
The country is still spilt, and along a lot of familiar lines. Young people support gay marriage, while older Americans oppose it. Men are more likely to oppose it than women. People in the Northeast and the West are more accepting of gay marriage than people in the Midwest and the South. And though the gap is narrowing, African Americans oppose it by a wider margin than whites.
A Gallup poll this week shows that 50 percent of Americans support gay marriage, and 48 percent oppose it.
“This is still a very divisive issue,” said Carroll Doherty, an associate director at the Pew Center for People and the Press.
In North Carolina, 61 percent of voters said yes to Amendment One, making the state the 30th to prohibit same-sex marriage in its constitution (a 31st state, Hawaii, approved a constitutional amendment that said only the state legislature, not the state’s supreme court, can determine who can marry). The state’s amendment also bans civil unions and domestic partnerships among unmarried couples.
Opponents of gay marriage are quick to note that none of the states where gay marriage has been on the ballot have endorsed it.
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, praised North Carolina voters for passing the measure and, in a statement, said that most Americans agree.
"A clear majority of the American people have not given up on standing in support of marriage – but instead the evidence suggests they want to see it strengthened and preserved for future generations," he said.
Still, North Carolina Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, one of Amendment One’s strongest backers, said in March that he thought the measure would be repealed within 20 years.
According to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll last month, 63 percent of so-called “Millennials” – generally those under 30 – support same-sex marriage, compared with 30 percent of their grandparents’ generation. While the survey showed an increase in support across all age groups, the change among young people was the most dramatic.
“The long-term trend is pretty clear on this,” Doherty said. “Given the demographics, it’s likely to continue.”
Even though only 39 percent of North Carolina voters cast ballots against the amendment, supporters of same-sex marriage in the state say Tuesday’s outcome is a setback but that they’re not finished.
“We’re sort of digesting the outcome and looking at what our options are,” said Stuart Campbell, the executive director of Equality North Carolina.
North Carolina is a conservative state, but it’s considered less so than other Southern states. Amendment One was drafted quickly by the legislature and placed on the ballot in a Republican primary.
It also had the support of the Rev. Billy Graham, whose ministry took out a full-page ad in statewide newspapers. It was the first time Graham, 93, an evangelical minister and spiritual adviser to several presidents, had spoken out on the issue.
“I think the reason he came forward at this time is because it came home to him,” said A. Larry Ross, a Graham spokesman.
Campbell said the vote created a conversation that could benefit gay marriage campaigns in other states.
“We’re seeing a lot of people who a year or two ago weren’t thinking about this at all,” he said. “Our colleagues across the country can take a look at what we did and learn from it.”