Opportunities and risks for marriage equality in 2011

States that could lose marriage equality

New Hampshire: LGBT advocates have considered New Hampshire — with a new, veto-proof GOP majority — one of this year’s most serious battlegrounds. But House Majority Leader Rep. D.J. Bettencourt (R-Salem) said Jan. 13 that repealing the state’s year-old marriage equality law is not a Republican priority in 2011.

But Bettencourt refused to say he would discourage the introduction of repeal bills. And gay marriage opponents Kevin Smith, executive director of the far-right group Cornerstone Action, and State Rep. David Bates (R-Windham), told the Associated Press they still plan to pursue a repeal.

Iowa: Republicans in the legislature plan to introduce a bill to pursue a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, in response to a 2009 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court that made marriage legal for same-sex couples. The change must be approved by two successive legislatures and then ratified by voters. Republicans control the House 60-40, but Democrats have a 26-24 edge in the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) has said he would block a vote on such a bill.

Several Republican legislators also want to begin impeachment proceedings against the remaining four of the seven justices who joined in the unanimous marriage ruling.

The other three justices lost retention elections last November, after right-wing groups campaigned to oust them.

States that could win marriage equality

Rhode Island: Newly elected Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) expressed his support for marriage equality during his inauguration speech Jan. 4. Legislators introduced marriage equality bills in both the House and Senate on Jan. 6. Democrats hold large majorities in both chambers, and House Speaker Gordon Fox (D), who is openly gay, is a cosponsor of the bill. The bill may face a bigger struggle in the Senate.

Maryland: Marriage equality bills are pending in both houses of the legislature, and supporters now form majorities on the key judicial committees that must first approve them. State Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, however, said he will introduce a bill to allow civil unions.

New York: Although Republicans have a two-seat majority in the State Senate, Empire State Pride Agenda Executive Director Ross D. Levi said in a press release that LGBT advocates have “picked up at least two ‘yes’ votes.” Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he would sign a marriage equality bill if it reaches his desk.
All three of the above states already recognize gay marriages from other jurisdictions.

New Jersey: The state Supreme Court last June refused to hear a case that claimed the state’s civil union law did not provide full equality. It said the case must first go through the trial court process. Jennifer Pizer, National Marriage Project Director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said a trial court attempt is “a sensible next step for us to consider.” Lambda Legal and state LGBT rights group Garden State Equality are also working on another round of marriage equality legislation.

California: The case to overturn Proposition 8, the state ban on same-sex marriage, is in a rather unusual spot. It is awaiting a decision from the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, but the appeals panel said Jan. 4 that it could not render a decision on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 until the California Supreme Court rules that there is some state law or authority to justify giving the Yes on 8 proponents of the initiative legal standing to appeal the case in federal court on behalf of California voters.

Pizer also noted there are “serious efforts underway now” for potential ballot measures in 2012 to secure marriage equality in Maine, Oregon, and Washington.

States that could win civil unions

Hawaii: Acting House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, who is openly gay, told KITV Jan. 10 that he wants to pass a civil union bill early in the session. The Hawaii legislature is almost the same as the one that passed such a civil union bill last year only to see it vetoed by outgoing Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. Current Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, has said he would support a new bill.

Montana: Montana bans same-sex marriage under the state constitution, but the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a case on behalf of six couples to try and gain the protection of domestic partnerships.

Colorado and Delaware will also likely see civil union bills introduced.

States that could ban marriage equality

Indiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Wyoming have statutes that prevent same-sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses, but efforts to protect those bans from legal challenges are expected through proposed constitutional amendments.

Pizer noted that anti-gay groups may wait until 2012 to do seek introduction of such measures in hopes of using them to rally conservative voters to turnout during a presidential election year.