The openly gay sponsor of a marriage equality bill in Rhode Island said last week he would push for a civil unions bill instead, setting off a slew of criticism from LGBT groups. Six states are considering legislation that would ask voters to amend the state constitution to ban recognition of any legal relationships for same-sex couples. And all this was on the heels of a dramatic loss for a marriage equality bill in Maryland in March.
Has the state legislative fight for marriage equality lost momentum?
Not according to Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national Freedom to Marry group.
“Both Rhode Island and Maryland are very much still in play,” said Wolfson. “. . . The fact that we don’t win it exactly on the day we want . . . doesn’t change the overall momentum that is strongly in our direction.”
The “highest priority” right now, says Wolfson, is New York. Wolfson said he is “very hopeful” a marriage bill that is expected to pass the New York State Assembly, which is under Democratic control, will also pass the Senate, where Republicans hold a 32 to 26 majority.
Wolfson acknowledges the Senate may be more difficult. While a marriage equality bill passed the Assembly three times in the past four years, an attempt to pass it in the Senate in 2009 failed by 14 votes.
New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R), who opposes marriage equality, has nevertheless said he would let a marriage equality bill come to the floor.
And several recent polls show that a majority of voters in the state support marriage equality. A Siena College poll April 11 showed that 58 percent of New Yorkers support it, with 36 percent opposed. A Quinnipiac poll April 14 showed 56 percent support, with 38 percent opposed, and a New York Times estimated projection on the same date also showed 58 percent support.
Additionally, two dozen New York business leaders, including Lloyd C. Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, and John Mack, chairman of the board of Morgan Stanley, on April 28 issued an open letter arguing that legalizing marriage for same-sex couples would help the state attract talent and remain competitive.
“Winning New York would really be transformative,” said Wolfson, “because New York has enormous cultural and political leadership in the United States and in the world.”
Freedom to Marry and several other LGBT advocacy groups—the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, the League of Women Voters, the Log Cabin Republicans, and Marriage Equality New York—have formed the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition, which is coordinating efforts to lobby for the marriage equality bill this session, which adjourns in June.
Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), who has expressed strong support for passing such a bill this year, has asked members of his staff to work with the coalition.
In Rhode Island, openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D), a sponsor of that state’s marriage bill, said in a statement April 27 that “there is no realistic chance for passage of the bill in the Senate,” and that he will not move forward with a vote in the House.
But the Providence Journal newspaper also reported that Fox said he did not have the votes to pass the bill even in the House, where Democrats hold 65 seats to Republicans’ 10.
Fox said he will instead sponsor a bill for civil unions and is “optimistic” that such a bill could pass both chambers this session. He was expected to introduce the bill May 3.
But Fox’s decision has not gone over well with LGBT groups. Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), which supports full marriage, is holding a rally at the State House the same day to protest Fox’s decision to drop the marriage equality bill. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, and others, issued statements criticizing Fox’s decision and calling it “completely unacceptable”.
“Nothing short of marriage is equality for Rhode Island’s gay and lesbian citizens and their children,” said Karen Loewy, a GLAD senior staff attorney. “More to the point, civil unions tell gay people and their kids that they are second class citizens and that their families matter less than other families.”
Wolfson called Fox’s decision a “miscalculation.” He noted that polls show a majority of support among voters, that Rhode Island already recognizes marriages of same-sex couples performed elsewhere, and that nearby Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont all began with civil unions and have moved to full equality.
Similar to Rhode Island, marriage equality supporters never had a clear majority in Maryland either, even with the support of Governor Martin O’Malley (D). Although the bill passed the Senate in Maryland, but on March 11, the House unanimously to send the bill back to committee.
But in Maryland, several LGBT groups, including Equality Maryland, the leading state organization behind the bill, expressed approval for the move.
Wolfson noted, however, that Maryland was “within a couple of votes” of passage. With “a little more time to make the case and organize,” he thinks achieving equality could happen in early 2012.
Meanwhile, three states have enacted civil union laws this year—Delaware, Hawaii, and Illinois. Wolfson said that, while civil unions are not the true goal, they may still “sometimes can be a stepping stone.”
Camilla Taylor, marriage project director for Lambda Legal, agreed, saying that civil unions “are an important step forward” in states where same-sex couples have no benefits or protections. She added that Lambda is “often very involved,” as it was in Illinois, in drafting such legislation.
But Lambda also brought a suit before the New Jersey state Supreme Court claiming the state’s civil union law did not provide full equality. The Court last June refused to hear the case, saying it must first go through the trial court process.
Taylor said she could not say whether Lambda would be filing any further cases to contest civil unions, noting that it is important in each state to first “develop a record of the ways in which it harms people to deny them equal access to marriage.”
Six states—Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington, also have active legislation that would ask voters to amend the state constitutions to ban marriage—and in some cases, recognition of any legal relationships, such as civil unions—for same-sex couples.
New Mexico and Wyoming both considered but did not pass such bills this year. Wyoming also rejected a bill that sought to prevent the state from recognizing marriages and civil unions of same-sex couples from other jurisdictions.
Washington State has seen a mish-mash of marriage-related bills. The state already allows same-sex couples to register as domestic partners and, on February 14, bills were introduced in both chambers of the legislature for marriage equality.
And on April 5, Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire (D) signed a bill to recognize legal relationships of same-sex couples from other jurisdictions as domestic partnerships. But there is also a bill in the House that would ask voters to ban marriage for same-sex couples under the state constitution. Democrats have a majority in both chambers.
The situation in New Hampshire is also mixed. A House committee voted March 3 to table a bill that would repeal the state’s existing marriage equality law, thus postponing further consideration until January 2012. But opponents of marriage equality have said they will also introduce a bill next year seeking to ask voters in November 2012 to approve amending the state constitution to ban marriage for same-sex couples.