Six months after Maryland, Maine and Washington voters endorsed same-sex marriage at the ballot box, two more states have adopted laws allowing gay couples to marry, and a third is poised to join them. On Tuesday, lawmakers in Delaware adopted a same-sex marriage law, and Minnesota's House of Representatives passed a marriage equality measure there today, setting up a final vote in the Senate on Monday. Last week the Rhode Island legislature adopted a similar measure. That three states have moved to legalize gay marriage over the span of less than a month shows how quickly public attitudes toward same-sex unions are changing. Still, more progress may be difficult until more Republicans start to see the issue as one of civil rights, equal protection under the law and individual liberty.
Polls show that nearly 60 percent of Americans now believe gay marriage should be legal, up from less than 40 percent only a decade ago. Among young people, about 8 in 10 think gay couples should be allowed to marry, a trend that clearly favors wider acceptance of such unions in the future. The evolution of public opinion on same-sex marriage is in line with a broader movement toward recognition of gay rights that has manifested itself over the last year in spheres as varied as the Boy Scouts, professional sports teams and the military.
The Supreme Court is currently considering two cases related to same-sex marriage, one that could establish it as a right under the Constitution and another that could overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages. During oral arguments, the justices signaled varying degrees of discomfort with making a sweeping ruling in either case, but as the political battle over rights for gays tilts toward equality in state after state, such caution appears increasingly out of touch.
Just as the court's finding in the 1954 Brown school segregation case that racially separate schools were inherently unequal eventually became accepted as conventional wisdom, so too will the idea of a second-class version of marriage for gay couples come to seem equally unfair. It's up to the justices to decide which side of history they want to be on.
Barring sweeping action by the court, the progression toward equality may be due for some difficult times. Illinois lawmakers believe they will soon have the votes to support gay marriage, but there may be only a handful of other states left where marriage equality is likely to be approved in the foreseeable future. Virtually all the others are controlled by Republican state legislatures whose members generally have been far less sympathetic to legalizing gay unions than their Democratic counterparts, and many have constitutional provisions against gay marriage that will make progress harder to achieve.
Over the short term, the GOP's ability to block legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry might seem an insurmountable barrier to extending gay rights. But given the demographic trend toward increasing acceptance of gay rights, the Republican Party's opposition to equality is likely to become a liability in national elections. In 2012, the Obama campaign used the issue to energize the Democratic base and produce big wins in purple states like Virginia and Florida where Republicans control the legislature.
To their credit, some Republican lawmakers have begun to speak out in favor of marriage equality. They include some high-profile names such as Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and former vice president Dick Cheney, both of whom softened their positions against same-sex marriage after learning of close relatives who were gay. Republicans provided crucial votes in Maryland's legislature and elsewhere. But those voices are still very much in the minority. Most Republican elected officials and the party's base remain staunchly against gay marriage.
At some point, the GOP is either going to have to recognize that its reflexive opposition to extending marriage rights is counterproductive in terms of winning back the White House and Senate, or see itself reduced to a permanent opposition party whose ambitions to govern are constrained by the views of its most conservative voters. That may be just fine with the lawmakers who succeed in getting elected with their support, but it's bad for the party as a whole and bad for the country as well.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun