Gay marriage returns to the political spotlight

By David Crary

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 file photo, Daryl Fields, center, and his partner O'Brian Banner, right, speak during a news conference in Annapolis, Md. to announce support of a same-sex marriage bill by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, left. A similar bill passed the state Senate last year but stalled in the House of Delegates. With a flurry of coast-to-coast developments in late January 2012, same-sex marriage is back in the political spotlight and likely to remain there through Election Day as a half-dozen states face potentially wrenching votes on the issue. In most of the showdown states - notably Maryland, New Jersey, Washington and Minnesota - polls suggest voters are almost evenly divided on whether gays deserve the right to wed.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

With a flurry of coast-to-coast developments this week, same-sex marriage is back in the political spotlight and likely to remain there through Election Day as a half-dozen states face potentially wrenching votes on the issue.

In Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, bills to legalize same-sex marriage have high-powered support and good chances of passage in the legislature. Gay-marriage opponents in Maryland and Washington would likely react by seeking referendums in November to overturn those laws, while New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, says he'll veto the bill if it reaches him and prefers that lawmakers OK a referendum so voters can decide.

In all three states, polls suggest voters are closely divided on whether gays should have the right to marry, so there's a chance one could emerge as the first state to support same-sex marriage in a statewide vote.

Maine voters also may have an opportunity to vote for same-sex marriage in November; an announcement by gay-rights activists about a ballot-measure campaign is set for Thursday. Proposed amendments for constitutional bans on gay marriage will be on the ballots in North Carolina on May 8 and in Minnesota on Nov. 6.

In New Hampshire, Republicans who now control the legislature are mulling whether to repeal the 2009 law legalizing same-sex marriage. Their state is one of six with such laws, along with Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.

Added together, the state-level showdowns will likely raise the prominence of the marriage issue in the presidential campaign, even though it's not a topic that the leading candidates tend to broach proactively.

"There's a lot going on," said gay-marriage advocate Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry. "It means that candidates — whether Romney or Obama — who hope to avoid the discussion will not be able to."

Three of the remaining Republican presidential contenders, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, have signed a National Organization for Marriage pledge opposing same-sex marriage and endorsing a federal constitutional amendment to ban it. But it's not among the topics prominent in the stump speeches of Romney or Newt Gingrich, the two front-runners.

On the Democratic side, President Barack Obama has taken several steps during his first term that have pleased gay-rights advocates, but says he is still "evolving" in regard to same-sex marriage and isn't ready to endorse it. Some activists hope he will do so before the election, though there's been no strong hint of that from the White House.

"Obama will get asked about it, and you can't straddle both sides of this forever," said Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights. "Clearly he's not going to retreat, so he only has one place to go, and I think he will do it before the election."

Another potential factor: Judgments could be issued during the campaign in one or more of several pending federal court cases about same-sex marriage. Appeals could result in the issue heading toward the Supreme Court, and the presidential candidates would be expected to comment on any major development.

A summary of the latest state-by-state events:

NEW JERSEY: Thanks to a change of heart by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a gay marriage bill is now seen as having a strong chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled legislature. Christie, a Roman Catholic who has long opposed gay marriage, says he'd veto the bill if it reaches him, but on Tuesday he urged lawmakers to put the issue before voters in a statewide ballot measure.

"Let us have a discussion about this in halls of schools and homes and synagogues and churches and ball fields across New Jersey, and let people decide," Christie said.

Sweeney rejected the suggestion, saying, "Civil rights is not to be placed on the ballot."

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