After an overwhelming vote to ban gay marriage in Missouri on Tuesday, both sides said yesterday that an issue that has gained little traction in Congress appears to be resonating with the American people and could play a growing role in this year's congressional and presidential elections.
Gay rights groups said they learned a hard lesson from Missouri's passage of a state constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage and would put up a tougher fight in other states where voters may adopt similar amendments this year. But they still expect to lose.
"Sadly, I do think a lot of these state ballot initiatives will succeed despite our best efforts to stop them," said Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group.
Elated by the 71 percent to 29 percent vote in Missouri, opponents of same-sex marriage predicted that a dozen more states would approve constitutional bans by the end of the year.
"At weddings they used to say, 'Speak now or forever hold your peace.' This shows that the people, when given the opportunity, speak very clearly," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
Missouri's referendum was the first opportunity for voters anywhere in the country to take a stand on the issue since Massachusetts began allowing same-sex couples to marry in May. More surprising than the margin of passage, which had been predicted by opinion polls, was the turnout of about 1.5 million voters, or 400,000 more than expected for a primary election.
Seth Kilbourn, the Human Rights Campaign's national field director, said he believed that most of the additional voters were opponents of gay marriage who went to the polls solely because of the issue. "We were out-organized by the competition, which was able to do a lot of organizing with very little resources. They activated the churches in a way that was very successful," Kilbourn said.
On the other hand, supporters of same-sex marriage continued their streak of victories in the courts yesterday as a trial judge in Washington state struck down a state law that limited marriage to heterosexual couples.
The decision by King County Superior Court Judge William L. Downing was immediately stayed, meaning no same-sex marriage licenses can be issued until it is reviewed by the state Supreme Court. But it was nonetheless legally significant, particularly because Downing rejected the contention that children will suffer if they are raised by two men or two women.
"Although many may hold strong opinions on the subject, the fact is that there are no scientifically valid studies tending to establish a negative impact on the adjustment of children raised by an intact same-sex couple as compared with those raised by an intact opposite-sex couple," he wrote.
Social conservatives said the court ruling showed why federal and state constitutional amendments are needed. The federal government and 34 states -- including Missouri -- have "Defense of Marriage" laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
But those laws can easily be struck down by "egregious litigation," said the Rev. Gene Mills, an Assemblies of God minister in Louisiana who is leading the charge for a constitutional amendment that will be on a special-election ballot there Sept. 18. "We're casting this as: Either the people of Louisiana decide, or some federal or state court in another state decides," he said.
Eight states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah -- have placed marriage amendments on the November ballot. Petitions on ballot initiatives are awaiting certification in Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio. Four states -- Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska and Nevada -- have enacted constitutional amendments in previous years.
In the presidential race, President Bush has endorsed a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution on marriage, but it was defeated in the Senate on a procedural vote July 14. The Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), has said he opposes same-sex marriage but does not favor amending the constitution to ban it.
In many House races across the South and Midwest, Democratic candidates have neutralized the issue by opposing gay marriage. In heavily Republican northern Kentucky, for example, Democrat Nick Clooney, a retired TV anchorman and the father of actor George Clooney, is running for Congress on a platform that includes support for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Conventional wisdom holds that the issue can only hurt Democrats. But in Colorado's 7th Congressional District -- a moderate, blue-collar area where a third of the registered voters are Democrats, a third are Republicans and a third are independents -- opposition to the federal amendment appears to be galvanizing liberal support for Dave Thomas, the Democratic challenger to freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez, a conservative Republican who is a co-sponsor of the amendment in the House.
A spokeswoman for Thomas said his support for civil unions and opposition to the proposed amendment has been "a very big issue" in the race. Beauprez's campaign manager, Jack Stansbery, said that it "really hasn't been" much of an issue and that Beauprez "tries to focus more on things like the economy and homeland security, although he's never shied away from where he stands on social issues."