Three Strikes for Same Sex Marriage in the Northeast

Advocates for same sex marriage won a victory last week as the Washington D.C. City Council voted to approve a measure legalizing gay unions performed within the district.    But that victory pales in comparison to sharp rebukes delivered to the gay marriage movement by three deep blue Northeast states just in the last six weeks.

On Election Day, Maine delivered the first blow to same sex marriage in the region when voters in a statewide referendum rejected a state law legalizing gay marriages in the state.  By a 53-47 percent margin – the same margin by which President Obama was elected last November – Mainers overturned the will of their Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled legislature, which had approved the law just six months earlier.  

The loss, and the margin of defeat, came as a shock to the law’s supporters, who had expected liberal New England voters to affirm what they see as a civil right.  In rejecting the state law, Maine became the first New England state to reject same sex marriage.

One month later, the New York State Senate took up the issue.  The State Assembly had passed a gay marriage bill in May.  But the Senate was not able to consider the bill for nearly seven months, due to a bruising summertime fight for control of the chamber fueled in part by the contentious issue.

Senate Democrats had won the majority in 2008, but were only able to hold their factious caucus together by promising moderates like Sen. Reuben Diaz and Sen. Hiram Monserrate that the Senate would not take up a gay marriage bill.  When it appeared likely that the Democratic leadership would break their word and call a vote on the Assembly bill in early June, Monserrate and another moderate Democrat, Sen. Pedro Espada, Jr., bolted the caucus, throwing their support behind minority Republicans and placing control of the chamber in doubt for more than a month.

The dispute was eventually resolved and the moderates mollified enough so that Democrats felt comfortable bringing the bill back to the Senate floor.  Despite the summertime turmoil, Democrats were confident that it would pass.  But the bill failed by a 38-24 vote, with eight Democrats joining every Republican in opposing same sex marriage.  

As in Maine, the size of the defeat stunned supporters of the bill.  Senate Democrats had boasted in the days leading up to the vote that the measure could garner as many as 35 votes in favor.  New York Governor David Paterson, who had pledged to sign the bill, was left to lament its failure.  

“I think that there were political forces that in some respects intimidated some of those who voted,” the governor said. “I think if there’d actually been a conscience vote we’d be celebrating marriage equality right now.”

The following week, New Jersey became the third Northeast state to attempt a legalization of gay marriage.  New Jersey already had a law legalizing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.  However, gay marriage advocates deemed that law insufficient and were pushing the Democratically controlled legislature to enact full marriage rights.  

Supporters of same sex marriage in New Jersey were hoping to get a bill on Governor Jon Corzine’s desk before the end of his term on January 19, 2010.  Corzine was defeated last month by Republican Christopher Christie, who is on record against same sex marriage and had vowed during the campaign to veto any such bill.  So in New Jersey, time was of the essence.

Gay marriage advocates’ hopes were raised when a key Senate committee narrowly approved the Assembly bill.  But once in front of the full Senate, same sex marriage did not fare as well as in Maine or in neighboring New York.  Supporters of the measure were forced to pull the bill from consideration by the Senate and send it to the Assembly as Democrat Senators began to back away.  

The bill’s sponsors insisted that the move was not an attempt to avoid a defeat in the Senate.  But with time running out on Corzine’s term, the prospects for same sex marriage in New Jersey were significantly hampered by the move.

Washington D.C.’s move to legalize same sex marriage could ultimately be short lived if Congress, in its oversight role, votes to invalidate the law.  But with Democrats firmly in control of the House and Senate, it is unlikely that a bill to rescind gay marriage in the nation’s capital will make it to the floor of either chamber.

Congress could be forced to act if same sex marriage advocates push for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which says states do not have to recognize gay marriages performed in other jurisdictions.  With state after state – thirty-one in all – rejecting same sex marriage initiatives, supporters may feel that the best chance to achieve their goals lies in overturning the federal statute, which has been on the books since 1996.

But the Obama Administration has said that it supports DOMA, and Congress will likely not want to debate the issue during an election year.  So for now, gay marriage advocates may have to be content with their Washington D.C. victory, and accept their larger defeats in the Northeast.