WASHINGTON-On Tuesday, Maine became the 31st state to reject the legalization of same-sex marriage by referendum. The vote was a shattering defeat for gay marriage advocates who thought the state might be the first where voters would uphold such laws.
Maine's Democratic Gov. John Baldacci signed the law allowing same-sex marriage after the state legislature passed it earlier this year. Voters repealed the law with about 53 percent of the vote. The five states that now allow gay marriage-Iowa, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire-did so through the courts or legislature, not through a popular vote.
The results are significant not just for Maine, but also for Washington, D.C., which is in the process of legalizing same-sex marriage through the District Council. Ten of the district's 13 council members introduced the gay marriage measure in October. They held hearings on the issue (all before Maine's referendum) and will likely pass it into law in the next month or so.
Local traditional marriage advocates, with few avenues politically, are still pushing for a voter referendum on the measure, but that is unlikely. Washington's Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that same-sex marriage was not eligible to be considered through a referendum because it could be discriminatory, and a Superior Court judge affirmed that ruling. Traditional marriage advocates will likely work on an appeal.
But a referendum in Washington could be the first instance of voters approving same-sex marriage. Washington is a city made up of fewer and fewer black churchgoers who support traditional marriage and more and more young white professionals who support gay marriage. (See "Gentrification, gay marriage, and the gospel," Aug. 1, 2009.) The district is the "gayest" among states, and falls within the top 10 for highest gay population in a city (it's not really a state, but it's not really a city, either). Though traditional marriage has prevailed in 31 states, same-sex marriage has a chance of prevailing in Washington, though polls differ depending on who conducts them. Both sides admit privately that a vote could go either way.
"The majority of the district would vote for marriage equality," longtime local gay marriage advocate Peter Rosenstein told me in a discussion about a D.C. referendum this summer. "The issue is it should never come to a referendum. We have a history in this country of not putting the rights of a minority up to the vote of the majority."
A pro-gay marriage blogger for the Washington City Paper, Mike DeBonis, wrote in September that the city should put the issue to a vote. Gay marriage would prevail, he wrote, "in a landslide."
The aversion of gay marriage advocates to a referendum, however, perhaps betrays some nervousness that the measure would be defeated as it was in Maine, where polls were split similar to D.C. Maine has the most same-sex couples per 1,000 households of any state, according to recently released Census data, with Washington, D.C., being the exception.
Bishop Harry Jackson, a local church leader who has been at the forefront of the effort for a referendum, said back in the summer that traditional marriage advocates have a coalition to prevail in a referendum on same-sex marriage. "I think the other side really didn't believe they would have any opposition," he said.