News Analysis: Evaluating the Next Marriage Equality States

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday November 15, 2012

With the exciting victories of Nov. 6 behind them, marriage equality advocates are hardly resting on their laurels. Now that Maine, Washington State and Maryland have been added to New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, the battle moves on to the next most-likely states.

Although it's anyone's guess what will happen in a volatile political climate, a few states look especially good for making marriage equality legal. Here, in order, are evaluations of the political mood in Illinois, Rhode Island, Delaware and New Jersey.


In 2011, Illinois passed the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. As the name implies, this legalized civil unions with a special shout-out to the carve-outs for religious denominations (which, in fact, are boilerplate for marriage-equality legislation in every state that has enacted such legislation).

As in other states that have enacted civil unions, they are the "separate-but-equal" equivalent to full-blown marriage. Civil unions have long been looked at as the the middle path between no recognition and marriage.

Advocates consider it to be the equivalent of those "other" separate-but-equal laws, and, like racial segregation, to produce in actuality some very real inequalities that can only be remedied by full-blown marriage.

Vermont was the first state to institute any kind of legal recognition of gay unions way back in 2000. Vermont only moved from civil unions to marriage in 2007.

Most observers don’t expect it to take nearly as long in Illinois.

First, there’s the political map. Despite its nickname, the Land of Lincoln has long been solidly Democrat, thanks to the outsized influence of Chicago, which dominates the state’s politics (much to the annoyance of largely rural GOP Downstate).

With the State Legislature firmly in Democratic hands, and a Democratic governor who would certainly sign a marriage-equality bill into law, it looks good for the legislative process. The state’s sole GOP officeholder, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, is squishy at best in his opposition, which only leaves the usual suspects like the National Organization for Marriage to carry on what would be a lonely fight, along with the still-powerful voice of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago.

Marriage equality now has its own powerful backer, however, in the person of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Although he doesn’t hold statewide office, the mayor of Chicago (like the mayor of New York City) ranks as the second most powerful politician in a state where one city nearly matches the rest of the state in population.

The former chief of staff to president Barack Obama, in a post-election letter to the Sun-Times (itself a statement, since the paper is more conservative than its rival, the Tribune), stated categorically that he believes "Illinois must lead the way" toward full marriage equality.

Emanuel has since stated that he ranks this as one of his three top legislative priorities for the state’s upcoming session. Emanuel’s well-known ability for political strong-arming and his ability to corral various factions could be the key in the Prairie State.

Rhode Island

The Nov. 6 victory in Maine leaves Rhode Island as the wallflower at catching the marriage bouquet: All of the other five New England states, plus the giant to the south, New York State, now have full-blown marriage equality.

The state recognizes marriages from other states. Considering how small Rhode Island is, an hour in any direction will lead couples to a same-sex marriage. So at this stage of the game, Rhode Islanders have marriage equality -- as long as they tie the knot somewhere else.

As in Illinois, civil unions became law last year, when marriage supporters in the State Legislature couldn’t see the votes for full marriage equality. The head of Marriage Equality Rhode Island told EDGE that he foresaw such a bill becoming law before the end of next year.

The only thing holding Rhode Island back is its religious demographic: With two-thirds of the state’s population self-identifying as Roman Catholic, the Ocean State probably has the highest percentage of Catholics of any state in the union. But the state has a long history of tolerance, dating back to its very beginnings, when Roger Williams fled the dogmatic Puritans.

In addition, like the rest of New England, it has become solid blue and trends much more liberal than in the past. When you include the encirclement of marriage equality and the de facto recognition of gay marriage anyway, the state’s legislators look likely to pass a bill in the next session.

Look to more stringent religious carve outs than in other states (at least on paper) as one way to mollify Roman Catholic opposition.


Who knows what would have happened if Joe Biden hadn’t plainly expressed his support for marriage equality back in December? What we do know is that his on-air statement pushed President Barack Obama to "come out of the closet" about his full-throttled support for marriage equality.

Although he’s been spending his days in Washington, D.C., Vice-President Biden casts a long shadow in his home state. His son serves as the state’s attorney general (and probably could win any statewide office he wanted). And -- guess what? -- the state passed civil unions last year. It went into effect on Jan. 1, 2012. Do you detect a trend here?

A 2011 poll showed voters split down the middle about full marriage equality. But with neighboring Maryland, which virtually surrounds the state on the land side, having voted in gay marriage on Nov. 6, the signs look good in the First State, which has been trending much more toward liberal views on social issues.

Del. Gov. Jack Markell told the Huffington Post that same-sex marriage is "inevitable," probably sometime in 2013. More importantly, Markell said he would take a page from the governors of Maryland and New York and spearhead the drive to pass such a bill through the State Legislature if he saw a need for such action.

New Jersey

New Jersey presents the most fascinating situation of any of the states being reviewed here.

Yes, the state is yet another that has civil unions. The state is solid blue. The State Legislature passed a marriage equality bill back in February. But then it came up against a rather large roadblock: Gov. Chris Christie.

As everyone in American now knows, thanks to his keynote address at last summer’s GOP convention in Tampa, and more recently his praise of Obama after Hurricane Sandy devastated his state, Christie is an outsized political figure with national ambitions. The governor certainly disappointed gay activists when he vetoed the bill.

It’s entirely possible that the Legislature will pass another measure just to put the governor on the spot. The governor’s likely opponent in his re-election bid will be Corey Booker, the mayor of Newark, the state’s largest city, also hugely popular and a formidable challenger for the governor.

Booker is a passionate backer of sam-sex marriage. "Marriage equality is not a choice," he said when it was being considered in the Legislature. "It is a legal right." He blasted Christie for vetoing the measure, and the Legislature would just love the chance to highlight the disconnect between Christie’s party and most of the state’s voters.

Christie’s argument was that marriage should be put up for a referendum before the voters. Garden State Equality, the state’s largest gay-rights organization, opposes such a move, as does the nation’s most prominent marriage-equality group, Freedom to Marry.

"It would be a terrible road for New Jersey to go down," Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Nov. 10. He complained about "a huge amount of work and money and time and nervousness that nobody should have to go through."

At this point, however, if the Legislature goes ahead and puts it to the voters in the next election anyway, it looks likely to pass with a solid majority.

There’s a natural and very understandable tendency of gay activists to oppose putting marriage equality before voters. They dislike voting on a basic human right as though it were an issue like a tax levy or casino gambling. But last week showed that Americans increasingly can be counted on to vote for fairness and decency.

Although no one can predict elections in advance, this one does not look as though it would be a nail biter.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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