The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three more states could legalize gay marriage by year’s end

GW student Cam Tucker is silhouetted behind a rainbow flag in front of the Supreme Court on March, 27, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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Gay-rights activists are kicking off a week-long stretch of public pressure and legal wrangling that could see three states legalize same-sex marriage, capping a year that marked a sea change in public opinion and political and legal victories.

Activists on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate rallied in Springfield on Tuesday as legislators in Illinois kicked off a short three-day session usually reserved for overturning vetoes. A same-sex marriage bill passed the state Senate earlier this year, but it stalled in the House, where Democratic leaders worried they didn’t have the votes.

Rep. Greg Harris (D), the prime sponsor of the Illinois legislation, was still working to round up the 60 votes he would need to get the bill through the House as legislators reconvened Tuesday. It was unclear whether he would file the bill, or if he would hold off until the legislature meets again in January. Harris didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

On Wednesday, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and county clerks will argue for same-sex marriage before the New Mexico Supreme Court. Earlier this year, eight county clerks in New Mexico began unilaterally issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples. The organization of county clerks asked the court to provide guidance on whether same-sex unions were legal.

The Supreme Court isn’t expected to rule immediately, but activists who favor marriage say they are optimistic, given rulings that courts in other states have issued. New Mexico is one of the few states that never passed a same-sex marriage ban, and it’s the only state where laws regulating marriages don’t have references to specific genders.

“Our state has always been a very diverse state. It’s part of our identity. So we’re one of the few states that has never gone out of its way to put a Defense of Marriage Act into law,” said Micah McCoy, a spokesman for the state branch of the ACLU.

And on Monday, legislators in Hawaii will return for a special session, called by Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), for the exclusive purpose of passing a same-sex marriage bill. Abercrombie had said he wouldn’t call a special session unless he was certain he had the votes to pass the bill.

The three states would cap a remarkable year of victories for gay-rights activists that began on Election Day 2012, when voters in Washington, Maryland and Maine passed ballot measures legalizing same-sex marriage. That same day, voters in Minnesota rejected a same-sex marriage ban.

The Rhode Island and Delaware legislatures passed measures in 2013 to legalize same-sex marriage. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and ruled against Proposition 8, a voter-passed California measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

And on Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) dropped his appeal of a state court ruling that allowed same-sex marriage after the state Supreme Court refused to issue a stay; dozens of gay couples were married just after the stroke of midnight on Sunday at ceremonies in town halls, boardwalks and private homes.

“The good news is we have irrefutable momentum,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a pro-gay-rights organization that has organized political support for the measures in several states.

Passing a marriage bill in Hawaii will have special significance to gay-rights groups. This year is the 20th anniversary of Baehr v. Lewin, a decision by Hawaii’s Supreme Court that a law against gay marriage violated the state constitution. Wolfson served as co-counsel for the gay couple that took the law to court.

If Illinois and Hawaii pass the marriage bills, most states with Democratic-controlled legislatures will have acted. That has gay-rights activists looking to the ballot box in 2014. Supporters are gathering signatures to get a gay-rights measure on the ballot in Oregon; if they succeed, Oregon would be the first state to repeal a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

On the other side of the debate, traditional marriage backers have a same-sex marriage ban that will be on the ballot in Indiana.

Wolfson said his group eventually hopes to get a lawsuit back to the Supreme Court, in hopes of securing federal recognition of same-sex marriage and forcing states that don’t allow gay marriage to recognize weddings that have taken place in other jurisdictions.