WASHINGTON — History repeats itself. That old maxim is a favorite of those who advocate same-sex marriage in Maine.
One month after the passage of a ballot question vetoing the state’s 5-month-old same-sex marriage law, activists are beginning to look at what went wrong in a battle that seemed won before any votes were cast and are searching for new tactics for the next round of the fight.
Grasping for a new plan of action for Maine and the rest of the country, proponents of same-sex marriage take comfort in history.
Betsy Smith, executive director for Equality Maine, an advocacy organization, is one of those who believes in the power and patterns of history. Just as legal bans on interracial marriage were overturned decades ago, and just as religious prohibitions or restrictions on interfaith marriage have weakened over the years, so, she said, will bans on same-sex marriage eventually fall away.
“Over a period of time, I think that it is inevitable,” Smith said. “I think our country will evolve in its opinion on same-sex couples. I think this goes historically the same way as the ban on interracial marriage or the marriage between faiths. I don’t know the timing, but yes, we will be a country, not too many decades from now, that will not deny unions for same-sex couples.”
On Tuesday, the Washington, D.C., City Council voted to legalize gay marriage in the nation’s capital, handing supporters a victory after a string of recent defeats in Maine, New York and New Jersey.
Currently, only four states offer marriage licenses for same-sex couples (a fifth, New Hampshire, will do the same on Jan. 1), and a handful more offer some form of spousal benefits to same-sex couples. Twenty-nine states have constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman, and 11 more states have laws that define marriage the same way.
Sarah Warbelow, the state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights national advocacy group, said she thinks that the battle for marriage will eventually move out of the state arena and into the national spotlight.
“One of two things has to happen,” Warbelow said. “At some point there aren’t going to be any more state courts that are going to interpret their state constitutions to protect same-sex couples, and we’re going to run out of states that will pass it legislatively, whether that’s because they have a state defense-of-marriage law or they don’t feel it’s popular enough.
“So we’re going to stall. When that happens, the federal courts are going to have to be the ones to say that marriage is accessible nationwide — or the federal government is.”
Both Smith and Warbelow said that they see an inevitable victory for equal rights, probably by way of a majority of states authorizing same-sex marriages, and the Supreme Court ruling that the remaining states must follow suit, the same way that the civil rights movement achieved victory.
The gay rights movement, Warbelow said, is actually just the next step in the civil rights movement that began in the 1960s.
“Civil rights is a set of legal rights, and we are fighting for civil rights,” she said.
“It could be a long road, we hope it’s a shorter one, and part of what we’re hoping to do is to make people understand that the rights we are talking about are real,” Warbelow said. “There are very real benefits to getting married.”
Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine, said that the momentum of the battle for gay and lesbian rights has slowed in the wake of the vote on what was popularly known as Question 1.
“I think if you would have asked a lot of people whether or not same-sex marriage was inevitable a month ago, I think the answer from most of them would have been yes, and that they saw that momentum headed in that direction,” Brewer said. “Now, I don’t know. The playing field has changed here over the last four weeks. If I had to go out on a limb, I’d say it probably still is inevitable, but I’m not nearly as certain of that as I was a month ago.
“It may take longer at this point, and the venue may change.”
That venue change is the one that same-sex marriage supporters see: from the states to the federal government.
Marc Mutty, who chaired the Stand for Marriage Maine anti-marriage-equality campaign to repeal the state same-sex marriage law, said he doesn’t expect the issue to go away anytime soon.
“They have vowed that they would be back, and they’d be back as soon as they could,” Mutty said of proponents of same-sex marriage. “Equality Maine and their partners have already made it crystal clear this is not the end and they will be back, using all resources they have to forge ahead.”
Mutty said he’s not looking forward to the hard work he sees ahead in defending his camp’s November victory while still fatigued from the months of campaigning.
“I’m concerned that we’ll be dealing with this again, since we’ve dealt with it so recently,” he said. “Even the thought of having to go through this intense legislative battle is certainly not something I look forward to.”
Despite predictions from activists that same-sex marriage will eventually become a federal issue, Maine’s senators don’t see it that way.
The last time a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage came to the Senate, in the form of the June 2006 Federal Marriage Amendment (also called the Marriage Protection Amendment), Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Republicans of Maine, voted against forcing a vote. The cloture motion fell short of the required 60 votes.
Even though both have been praised by the Human Rights Campaign for their voting records on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, neither Collins nor Snowe sees marriage as a federal issue, representatives of the senators said.
“I would say that Sen. Collins believes that this issue is best handled at the state level since states have historically had responsibility for defining domestic relationships,” Collins’ spokesman said.
Snowe’s spokeswoman pointed out that in 1996 Snowe voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes.
Under that law, “it is left to individual states through the legislature or referenda to make their own determinations on this very personal issue,” Snowe’s spokeswoman said. “Sen. Snowe’s position has not changed.”
Brewer said that in the aftermath of the November vote, both sides of the debate have yet to remobilize and begin campaigning again, to either protest or uphold the veto.
“If you are an opponent of same-sex marriage, then you’re probably feeling pretty good,” he said. “If you’re a proponent of same-sex marriage, you’re kind of wondering what’s going to happen here. I don’t think anyone’s close to answering that.”
Smith said that there is no master plan or next step for her organization yet, but that they will continue the individual outreach and conversations that she hopes will make an impression on Maine’s voters.
“We are educating an entire country, entire culture and entire society,” she said. “It takes a while, but that education is happening right now.”
Whatever the momentum, Brewer, Mutty, Smith and Warbelow all agreed that a change of some sort is coming. Mutty said that polls aren’t always linear in predicting voting behaviors, and that attitudes can change.
“We’ve certainly seen a movement in society in this direction [of support for same-sex marriage] that’s undeniable,” he said. “There’s been no question that there’s an increase in acceptance. There’s speculation that as the older generation dies out, it’ll be more acceptable, because old people are less receptive to change than young people.”
Here is where the decades of uphill struggle that Smith and Warbelow have predicted come in.
“The caveat to that,” Mutty said, “is that those young people grow up to be old people, so that theory may not hold true in the end.”