Gay Marriage: yes or no?

Rhode Island advocates have shunned the ballot box, fearing defeat. Is it time to reconsider?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 17, 2012


In 32 states, voters have weighed in on same-sex marriage. In 32 states, they have rejected it. Little wonder, then, that gay rights activists have long shunned the ballot box.

But with voters in four more states — Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington — ready to take up the issue next month, advocates sense an historic shift in the making; a chance to break the streak.

The president has come out in favor of gay marriage, of course. And public opinion is moving with astonishing speed toward acceptance.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted June 28-July 9 found 48 percent of Americans in favor of same-sex nuptials and 44 percent opposed. Just three years prior, the country was against it, 54-37 percent.

Support is even stronger in three of the states voting next month. In Maryland, a recent public opinion survey showed gay marriage backers up 10 points. In Maine, the lead stands at 16 points, and in Washington as much as 18 points. Advocates, moreover, were outraising opponents by a margin of two-to-one at last count.

A gay marriage victory in one or more of these states would deprive opponents of a major talking point. But it could also shift the political calculus for supporters.

And that brings us to Rhode Island, where the gay marriage push has sputtered amid headline-grabbing successes in the other New England states.

Ocean State activists have always argued against a popular vote not just on strategic, but on moral grounds: why, they ask, should the majority be allowed to vote on the rights of a minority?

It is a compelling argument, one that speaks to the most basic sense of justice in the gay and lesbian community. But are we getting to the point where political considerations should trump it?


There are plenty of big, structural forces that have conspired to kill same-sex marriage in Rhode Island's General Assembly.

The Catholic Church, however diminished, has proven itself a potent political force. And advocacy group Marriage Equality Rhode Island, more adroit now, was ineffective and riven by conflict during the early stages of last year's legislative fight.

But the most important obstacle, going forward, is the composition of the state senate.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed is opposed to gay marriage. And a Phoenix analysis shows that about half of the 38-member upper chamber is on her side, with just one-third in favor, and the balance in the toss-up category (see "Will the Senate Kill Gay Marriage — Again?," 8.10.12).

This fall, local advocates have made a big push to oust gay marriage opponents from the Senate. And just before the primary election in September, they got a last-minute cash infusion from Tim Gill, a reclusive Colorado technology magnate who has invested heavily in state-level legislative races in a bid to tip the balance on marriage and other gay rights issues.

But the results of the Democratic primary were disappointing, with just one of the pro-gay marriage candidates in the six most watched races winning. And while advocates are hoping for better results in a half-dozen general election races next month, they would have to run the table to control half the chamber.

Even then, it could be tough to force the Senate president to bring the bill to the floor.

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