Political Hay

Seesawing Same-Sex Marriage

What outcome of the marriage debate is inevitable? Maine and New Hampshire may show the way.

By 6.4.09

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Both sides of the marriage debate once again look to the Northeast. The Live Free or Die state's governor today signed a bill that makes Rhode Island the sole New England state without same-sex marriage.

For fifteen years, the politics of same-sex marriage looked like a juggernaut as state after state rebuffed judicial efforts to define marriage as something other than the union of a man and a woman. Then, starting this year, the juggernaut began to run in the opposite direction as the state legislatures of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire joined Washington, D.C.'s city council in doing what only judges in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa had succeeded in doing: redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.

Now the debate is starting to look more like a seesaw, with each side saying the argument isn't over yet. In May, Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and David Boren (D-Okla.) introduced the D.C. Defense of Marriage Act, which would have Congress overturn the city council's 12 to 1 vote for same-sex marriage in the nation's capital. (The council's sole dissenting vote was cast by former Mayor Marion Barry.)

Jordan told TAS in an interview that the majority of D.C. residents "wanted marriage to remain what it has always been." African-American churches are poised to play a big role in the debate, with Bishop Harry Jackson of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and Hope Christian Church joining Jordan, Congressman Joe Pitts (R-Penn.), and Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) at the press conference introducing the bill.

"Our support is strongest in the black community and in communities of faith," says Jordan, who discounts the recent legislative votes for same-sex marriage. "Whenever the people have gotten a chance to vote on this issue directly, the people have gotten it right."

Despite 30 successful defense-of-marriage ballot initiatives, where the people stand is now of some controversy. Gay rights activists rejoiced at the first national poll, conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post, showing more people in support of same-sex marriage than against it. The breakdown was 49 percent for gay marriage, 46 percent against it, with a full 53 percent in favor of recognizing same-sex nuptials performed in other states where marriage has been redefined.

Ryan Sager, a conservative-leaning journalist who supports same-sex marriage, speculated that a "bandwagon effect" was taking place: an increasing number of voters were lining up on what they believed was the "winning side," in favor of a new marriage regime. Liberal number-crunching whiz Nate Silver built a regression model based on long-term demographic and political trends that led him to conclude a majority of states would have same-sex marriage by 2016, with only Mississippi balking until 2024.

Yet no sooner did the reaction to the ABC News/Washington Post poll die down than USA Today/Gallup weighed in with contradictory survey results: according to their May poll, 57 percent of the American people still opposed same-sex marriage while 40 percent supported it. The numbers were unchanged from May 2008 and showed more opposition than in May 2007. On the question of whether redefining marriage would make things better or worse in all of society, 48 percent answered worse, 13 percent said better, and 36 percent concluded it would have no effect either way.

At the state level, the results are starting to look less like bandwagon or backlash than whiplash. California's voters have twice defied both their legislature and the state supreme court to vote against same-sex marriage. Last week, the California state supreme court disappointed opponents of the second marriage ballot initiative by refusing to overturn Proposition 8. Same-sex marriage supporters may now try to repeal Proposition 8 by initiative, ironically boosted by not having Barack Obama on the ballot to boost black voter turnout.

Maine and New Hampshire are now the states to watch. Both states have Democratic governors who campaigned on a platform saying that marriage is between a man and a woman; both signed same-sex marriage bills passed by their state legislatures. But Maine, unlike the other same-sex marriage states in New England, has an easy process for a "people's veto" that could put the issue on the ballot in November. And in New Hampshire, the governor only agreed to sign the bill after religious liberty protections were added for people with faith-based objections to same-sex unions.

If that sounds like a compromise floated by gay marriage supporter Jonathan Rauch and marital traditionalist David Blankenhorn, that's because in essence it is. Rauch and Blankenhorn have said that since a national consensus on this issue is a long way off, the best way forward is maximum benefits for same-sex couples paired with maximum religious-liberty protections for people of faith.

Will Maine show that same-sex marriage is reversible even when enacted by liberal legislators rather than imposed by liberal judges? Will New Hampshire show that a workable compromise is possible that protects the interests of gays and conservative Christians alike? It used to be said that as Maine goes, so goes the nation. We'll soon see.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.