MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. — The state-to-state march to legalize gay marriage across the left-leaning Northeast has lost more momentum since a major setback three weeks ago at the ballot box in Maine.
Since then, legislatures in New York and New Jersey have failed to schedule long-expected votes on bills to recognize the unions in those states.
“If they are unable to pass gay marriage in New York and New Jersey, combined with the loss in Maine, it will confirm that gay marriage is not the inevitable wave of the future,” said Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which mobilizes social conservatives to fight against same-sex marriage.
Gay rights activists insist that’s not the case and say hope is still alive.
“In any civil rights struggle there are going to be periods of creeping and periods of leaping,” said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry.
This decade has had some of both across the country. The most significant was the leap the issue made from abstraction to reality in 2003 when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay couples had the right to get married.
The fallout was widespread: Thirty states have amended their constitutions to specify that marriage can only be between a man and a woman; all but three of those amendments were adopted since the Massachusetts ruling.
But in the Northeast, progress has been much smoother for gay rights advocates.
The Connecticut Supreme Court recognized the marriages last year.
Lawmakers in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine all adopted gay marriage bills this year. The city council in Washington, D.C., is expected to legalize gay marriage next month.
The only state outside the Northeast that recognizes same-sex marriage is Iowa, where the state Supreme Court mandated it earlier this year. California briefly issued licenses before voters passed a law stopping the practice.
Last month, voters in Maine — the only Northeastern state where the issue has been put on a ballot — overturned a gay-marriage law before it could take effect.
New York and New Jersey appeared to be the next logical battlegrounds.
New York is seen as relatively gay-friendly. Court rulings, including one from the state’s highest court just last week, have found that gay couples married outside New York are entitled to some government benefits.
New Jersey offers the legal rights afforded to married couples but calls them civil unions, not marriages. Recent public opinion polls have shown narrow support for allowing gay marriage in the state. However, a new poll out Wednesday from Quinnipiac University finds voters oppose gay marriage by a 49 to 46 margin, with a sampling error margin of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Both states have Democratic governors eager to sign bills legalizing gay marriage.
But now it’s not clear whether bills will ever get to their desks. There could be national implications if they don’t.
“If this goes down in both states, it will be seen by both sides as building on the momentum that opponents sort of got coming out of Maine,” said David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
There’s a sense of urgency in New Jersey. This month, voters elected Republican Chris Christie over incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Corzine has said he’ll sign a gay marriage bill. Christie promised a veto.
As a result, activists are pushing hard to get a bill passed before Christie takes office on Jan. 19.
But since the election, key Democrats have said they don’t intend to put the bill up for a vote unless they know it will pass. And so far, they say, that’s not assured. On Monday, when lawmakers met for the first time since the election, the issue was in legislative limbo — not scheduled but not declared dead either.
Len Deo, president of the conservative New Jersey Family Policy Council, said he believes some lawmakers who were undecided before the election would now vote against a gay marriage bill.
“Observing what happened in the general election, I think that took the wind out of the sails of the same-sex marriage movement,” he said.
Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, the state’s main gay rights organization, acknowledges his side has lost some support in Trenton.
“Was marriage equality in the bag before the election? Nothing in politics is ever in the bag, but we were looking pretty damn excellent,” Goldstein said.
Despite the uncertainty, Goldstein says he still expects a vote this year. “Now, we’re looking pretty damn good,” he said.
The situation in New York is similar to New Jersey’s, with no clear sign of whether there will be a vote in the state Senate. The state Assembly has already adopted a marriage bill.
Some conservatives say the special election this fall in New York’s rural 23rd Congressional District may have sent a signal to politicians. A conservative third-party candidate who opposes same-sex marriage forced the more moderate Republican — who supported same-sex marriage — to suspend her campaign. Democrat Bill Owens ultimately won the race.
Dan Poust, of the New York State Catholic Conference, said that pokes a hole in the notion that gay marriage is headed for passage this year. “Clearly that was premature, because the people are not there,” he said.
New York Sen. Thomas Duane, an openly gay lawmaker sponsoring the same-sex marriage bill, said Tuesday he still expects the state Senate to vote on and pass a bill by the end of the year.
Social conservatives have long told politicians they could lose their seats if they support gay marriage. But Kenneth Sherrill, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York, said politics have grown more complicated as same-sex marriage has become a major issue.
“It’s not as if politicians only have to fear an enraged group of people opposed to gay rights,” he said. “Politicians also have to be concerned about angry supporters of gay rights.”