Hours after the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, Udi Ofer of the American Civil Liberties Union spent his evening in a Unitarian church in Summit, N.J., training nearly 40 members how to convince three local Republican lawmakers to endorse same-sex marriage.
Less than two days later, leading Christian conservative Ralph Reed was on a conference call with nine donors and representatives of allied organizations discussing how to mobilize the money and resources to fight same-sex marriage activists not only in New Jersey but also in states including Iowa and Oregon.
Gay rights activists are pushing ahead with a well-financed, coordinated campaign that aims to legalize same-sex marriage in about a dozen key states within three years. But they face fierce resistance from conservative groups and their allies in state legislatures and Congress who hope to stymie any momentum coming out of the past week’s rulings on the issue.
This pitched political battle — which has cost each side millions of dollars and is poised to escalate — will help determine how broadly same-sex marriage is adopted over the coming decade or longer. It is also likely to play a major role in state and national elections in the near-term, as activists on both sides fight to win over the Republican voters and elected officials who are key to deciding the fight.
In two landmark decisions Wednesday, the Supreme Court cleared the way for federal recognition of legally married same-sex couples and gave an opening to California that allowed it to resume such unions there.
“Even before that moment, we were at work mapping the path forward toward expanding marriage equality,” said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry. “We have our plans to get to a majority of Americans living in a freedom-to-marry state by 2016 and to grow public support to 60 percent by 2016. . . . We know we have the momentum, now we just have to do that work.”
But Reed, who heads the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said gay marriage activists are overstating their political advantage, given that 29 states define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
“You’re very hard-pressed if you look at the map and see how they move the bar much further,” Reed said, comparing it to the push for an Equal Rights Amendment four decades ago. “A public-policy movement that was viewed as inevitable in 1976 was by 1982 dead and finished.”
“They’ve been highly successful,” Tina Fetner, a sociology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said of the conservative movement. “What’s happened is highly historic, but lesbian and gay activists aren’t winning everything they fight for; in fact, it’s probably the other way around.”
Both sides agree that a half-dozen states will be pivotal over the next three years, with several more potentially in play after that. Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Oregon rank as the top near-term targets for gay rights activists, while opponents of same-sex marriage are hoping to gain ground in Indiana and Iowa.
The campaigns vary depending on the state. On Friday, Oregon United for Marriage announced that it would soon start an effort to collect the 116,284 signatures needed to place an initiative on the 2014 ballot overturning a constitutional amendment and replacing it with the right to marry a member of the same sex. In New Mexico, which does not explicitly prohibit or permit gay marriage, a lower-level court is considering a same-sex marriage case that is probably destined for the state Supreme Court. And in Hawaii, activists began working sympathetic legislators last week on legislation to replace the state’s civil union law with a same-sex marriage statute.
Two of the most intense battlegrounds are New Jersey and Illinois, where same-sex marriage proponents hope to eke out legislative or court victories by the end of the year.
New Jersey allows civil unions, which became law after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that gay couples must be provided the same rights as heterosexual ones.
The legislature approved a same-sex marriage bill last year, but Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed it and has shown no sign of changing his position. Last week, Christie criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA as “incredibly insulting” to those who had passed the federal marriage law.
The issue could complicate Christie’s drive for reelection this fall. His Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, who is far behind in the polls, immediately began attacking him on the issue last week. State lawmakers are also weighing whether they can override Christie’s veto before a January deadline.
Lamda Legal plans to file a motion in New Jersey Superior Court this week arguing that the state’s civil unions are not equal to marriage, because same-sex couples will be denied the sort of federal benefits that those married in New York, Delaware and elsewhere now stand to receive.
Gay rights groups held a rally in Trenton on Thursday, after which officials from the ACLU and Garden State Equality met with Senate leaders inside the state Capitol. By Friday morning, Ofer, the state ACLU’s executive director, was on the phone with his lobbyist lining up which legislators the group would visit in the coming week.
“Given the Supreme Court ruling, New Jersey is now the epicenter for the next big battle for marriage equality,” said Ofer, whose group will file an amicus brief to Lamda Legal’s motion.
Anna Little, who leads the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s New Jersey chapter, spent Friday at the state Capitol as part of a “lobby day” on behalf of heterosexual marriage. The meetings have gone well, she said, “but we can add to it by involving pastors” who sympathize with her side’s position.
“There’s a lot of faith in church leaders rather than government leaders,” she said.
Mobilizing pastors is also a key part of the conservative strategy in Illinois, where the state House adjourned last month without taking up a marriage bill that had passed the state Senate. The state legalized civil unions in 2011.
“We defeated the Illinois efforts working with African American pastors,” said National Organization for Marriage spokesman Thomas Peters.
David E. Smith, executive director of Illinois Family Institute, said that his group has held four breakfasts with pastors since January under the title, “How should the church respond to the same-sex marriage debate,” and has another planned for July 9. The group has also distributed more than 30,000 copies of the booklet “What Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ Has Done to Massachusetts,” including more than 7,000 printed in Spanish.
On the other side, about a dozen groups — including the GOP-funded American Unity Fund, the Urban League and the Service Employees International Union — have launched discussions to work together on Illinois Unites for Marriage, and they are about to hire a state campaign manager.
Same-sex marriage opponents hope to gain ground in Indiana, which has yet to enact a constitutional ban, and in Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal after a court ruling in 2009.
Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, said a ballot initiative in Indiana defining marriage as between a man and a woman represents ”the best opportunity for us to advance our beliefs in a positive way.”
Conservatives will also push for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, sponsored by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), although its chances are slim to none in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Within a couple of years, the skirmishing could move to Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Virginia, activists say.
Many Republican politicians, meanwhile, are sitting on the fence. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has endorsed same-sex marriage, but his spokesman said Friday that he did not plan to participate in a ballot initiative overturning his state’s ban. And while some current New Jersey Republicans have voted in favor of same-sex marriage, none showed up at Thursday’s rally in Trenton.
“The key to full marriage equality now resides in the hands of Republican leadership and Republican elected officials,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said last week.