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Big Wins Re-Energize Gay Marriage Activists

Interactive Map: Battle Over Gay Marriage
Craig Winsor (left) and Victor Choban argue about Proposition 8 at a rally in front of the California Supreme Court building in San Francisco on March 5.
David Paul Morris
Getty Images
Craig Winsor (left) and Victor Choban argue about Proposition 8 at a rally in front of the California Supreme Court building in San Francisco on March 5.

Same-sex marriage advocates have racked up big recent victories in Iowa and Vermont, where legislators on April 7 approved a same-sex marriage measure by overriding a gubernatorial veto. They joined Connecticut and Massachusetts as states where gay marriage is recognized.

Similar efforts are well under way in a handful of other states, including New Jersey, New Hampshire, Maine and New York, where Gov. David Paterson on Thursday introduced a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

But though the national battle is still pitched — and even Paterson's bill faces an iffy future — there is a growing and powerful phenomenon that is expected to someday shape the debate over same-sex marriage: its wide acceptance among young Americans as a basic civil right.

Growing Acceptance Among Youth

Graham Gillette of Des Moines, Iowa, says he's always on the lookout for a teachable moment — a chance for his three children to learn from a real-life situation.

And the April 3 unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage provided just such an opportunity. Or so Gillette assumed.

"The day the ruling came down, I was taking my 13-year-old to baseball, and thought, 'Hey, big teaching moment,' " says Gillette. He imparted to his son the historic importance of the court's 7-0 decision to legalize what it referred to pointedly as "civil marriage."

"He looked at me and said, 'Duh. Why is this a big deal?' " said Gillette, a former Republican who supports same-sex marriage.

"To him, [the right to marriage] is a given, and it's stupid that we even talk about it," Gillette says.

Sixty percent of Iowans under age 30 support same-sex marriage, according to a recent University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll, numbers that are echoed nationally. Meghan McCain, the 24-year-old daughter of Republican Sen. John McCain, the party's most recent presidential nominee, weighed in this week as a "pro-gay-marriage Republican."

"The demographics are clear, the trends are strong and not reversible," says Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. "It's all over but the shouting."

Though people feel "deeply and emotionally about the issue," Haynes said, "gay marriage is inevitable in the United States."

Nationally, Opinion Remains Divided

Opponents, while acknowledging the direction of youth sentiment, beg to disagree.

"Without some reversal of the trends, that could be the case, but I'm not resigned to that," says Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, noting that when put to a public vote in California, legalized gay marriage lost.

"I don't think anything is inevitable," Perkins says, adding that he considers the Vermont situation "an outlier" that has run ahead of public opinion.

Twenty-nine states have constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman, and 13 states have laws that do the same.

A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that a majority of Americans oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. Fifty-five percent of those polled said such marriages should not be legally recognized; 44 percent said they should.

A CBS News poll released early this month also showed Americans divided on the issue: Six in 10 supported some form of legal recognition, but only one-third said that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

"Evidence does not suggest that the public is turning that quickly on this," Perkins says. "This is not a natural evolution."

Framing The Issue As One Of Civil Rights

The same-sex marriage movement has been historically speedy, says Marty Rouse, the national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, an organization at the forefront of the gay rights movement. It was only nine years ago that Vermont, amid turmoil and tumult, became the first state in the nation to approve civil unions for same-sex couples.

"As far as civil rights movements go and in terms of a change in culture, this has been a very fast evolution for American society," says Rouse, who has been instrumental in organizing state-based legalization efforts.

"But it's actually progressing the way we expected it would," he said.

For years, gay rights organizers have been working in targeted states to get sympathetic legislators elected, to organize grass-roots supporters, and to advance legislation that would soften the ground for same-sex marriage.

Four states allow same-sex couples to marry (Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa.) Three other states (New Hampshire, New Jersey and Oregon) extend to same-sex couples the same spousal rights guaranteed at the state level. The District of Columbia and California offer same-sex couples almost all state spousal rights. And three states (Hawaii, Maine and Washington) extend partial rights. Seventeen states now give their employees domestic partnership benefits.

There's been a concerted effort to stay away from religion, Rouse says, and to frame same-sex marriage as simply a civil right.

"We're not trying to deal with religion at all, and we're not asking for sanctification," Rouse says. "This is not new, but we do need to clarify it, because a lot of people picture marriage as walking down an aisle in church."

The 1964 Civil Rights Act exempts "religious corporations" from compliance with anti-discrimination rules in the conduct of their religious work or activities.

None of that placates opponents like Robert Vander Plaats of Sioux City, Iowa, a Republican who plans to make a third run for governor next year.

"I really believe that as soon as a same-sex couple goes to a church where they may have met and fallen in love and demand to be married, it will be a perfect case for a lawsuit against the church," says Vander Plaats.

"This is playing games with marriage, a judicial effort to redefine the institution of marriage," he says. "It is the union of one man and one woman."

Bigger Fights Ahead

During a rally Monday on the steps of the state Capitol in Des Moines, Vander Plaats pledged that, if elected, he would attempt to halt same-sex marriages until Iowans had an opportunity to vote on a state constitutional amendment that would bar such unions.

So, in Iowa as elsewhere, the issue is still far from settled. And both sides are girding for bigger fights ahead.

"This has awakened the sleeping giant," says Vander Plaats. "I see people who have been on the sidelines for a long time now saying they need to get back in the game."

A recent advertisement aired by the National Organization for Marriage, a group formed to fight same-sex marriage, is called "A Gathering Storm." It uses actors to portray everyday people who talk about how gay marriage would affect their lives.

"Advocates," says one, "want to change the way I live."

The Human Rights Campaign has responded with a Web site called "End the Lies" — an effort, the group says, to expose the "deception and fear" being used in the battle against gay rights.

And just down the road, gay rights activists say they plan to expand their marriage efforts to states including Hawaii, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Maryland. Activists are also still waiting for a court decision expected by June 4 on their constitutional challenge of Proposition 8, the successful anti-gay-marriage initiative in California.

"If we can't turn that around in 2010, we'll go to 2012," Rouse says. "It's been a state-by-state march. Change is coming."

But just how fast it will proceed appears to be in the hands of not only gay rights activists and their opponents, but also the parents — conservative, liberal or somewhere in between — of kids like Connor Gillette.

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