Gay marriage momentum stalls in N.Y., N.J.

No votes are scheduled in either state

By Geoff Mulvihill
Associated Press / November 27, 2009

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MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. - The state-to-state march to legalize gay marriage across the liberal 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 not scheduled 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 same-sex marriage.

Gay rights activists say that is not the case and that 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.

However, 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 Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday finds voters oppose gay marriage, 49 to 46 percent, with a sampling error margin of 2 percentage points.

Both states have Democratic governors eager to sign bills legalizing gay marriage.

But now it is not clear whether bills will ever get to their desks. There could be national implications if they do not.

“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 is a sense of urgency in New Jersey. This month, voters elected Republican Chris Christie over incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine. Corzine has said he would sign a gay marriage bill. Christie has 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 do not intend to put the bill up for a vote unless they know it will pass.