Which State Will Be the Next to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage?

With the stroke of Governor John Baldacci’s pen, Maine officially became the fifth state in which gay marriage is legal.

There seems to be something of a rush toward same-sex marriage afoot, with four states now legalizing it (two through the courts and two through legislative initiatives) in the past year—a far cry from 2004, when a state Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage in Massachusetts prompted voters in 11 states to preemptively outlaw the practice.

Still, a look at the current gay marriage battleground suggests that the new momentum, at least for the foreseeable future, will probably remain confined to culturally liberal pockets of the country—the blue states of the Northeast and Pacific coast. (Notwithstanding, as shown in Iowa last month, the ever-present possibility of a surprise Supreme Court ruling in an unexpected place.) With that in mind, here’s a look at the five most promising political targets for gay-marriage supporters as they seek to expand on their recent success:


1. New Hampshire: Literally any day now, New Hampshire could become the sixth state to legalize gay marriage. The state House and Senate have both passed legislation, which now sits on Democratic Governor John Lynch’s desk. Lynch has previously stated his support for civil unions (which the state already offers), but not full gay marriage. He is now the subject of an intense pressure campaign from both sides. If he were to veto the bill, the Legislature wouldn’t have the votes to override him.  

In theory, Lynch is a lame duck who would have nothing to lose politically by signing the bill. New Hampshire has no official term limits, but tradition dictates that governors serve no more than three terms. And Lynch, who was elected in a squeaker in 2004 and then re-elected by enormous margins in 2006 and 2008, is now in his third term. But there’s nothing to prevent him from trying to stick around. (Nothing, that is, except the example of previous governors—most recently, Mel “Ax the Tax!” Thomson in 1978—who pushed their luck and were slapped down by the voters).

Tellingly, he’s refused to rule out running again in 2010 (even as he’s adamantly dismissed the idea of running for Judd Gregg’s soon-to-be-open Senate seat). Clearly, he’s eyeing a fourth term—meaning that he has to tread very carefully on the same-sex marriage bill.

Lynch is notoriously cautious and risk-averse; it’s not hard to imagine him vetoing the bill and to justify it by saying it’s what he’d previously promised voters he’d do. But polling will almost certainly play a role, too, and if Lynch detects wide public support for the bill, it would be much easier for him to sign it. He could also let it become law without his signature. He has 10 days to decide.


2. District of Columbia: O.K., so it’s not a state, but it could be the next entity with electoral votes to legalize gay marriage. This week, the City Council voted 12-1 to recognize gay marriages performed in other states, a move that supporters admit is intended to lay the groundwork for gay marriage to be legalized in D.C. (Only Marion Barry, now a councilman, opposed the bill, saying: “All hell is going to break lose. We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this.”)

In an interesting wrinkle, the law must now be reviewed by Congress, which has jurisdiction over the District. Surely, there will be Congressional conservatives who will make noise about overturning the decision, but Congress also has the option of doing nothing—if no action is taken in 30 days, the law stands. Democratic Congressional leaders hardly want a gay-marriage fight right now; chances are this is the option they like. 

Given the lopsided Council vote, it’s hard to imagine a full gay-marriage bill having much trouble winning passage.


3. New Jersey: The state began recognizing domestic partnerships in 2004, then granted civil unions in 2006, and now seems close to allowing gay marriage. Governor Jon Corzine and the state’s Democratic legislative leaders all back it. Supporters say they are close to having majorities in both legislative chambers.

But there are two catches. One is that the entire 80-seat Assembly is up for reelection this fall. Legislators who are marginally supportive of gay marriage would prefer not to take the chance of riling up the normally sleepy electorate on such a potentially sensitive issue; they’d rather wait until next year. (A recent poll showed that residents narrowly back gay marriage, by a 49-43 percent margin.)

However, waiting for next year may be too late for supporters, because Republican Chris Christie, who has voiced opposition to gay marriage, is likely to unseat Corzine this November. Of course, Christie is by no means the prohibitive favorite; Corzine could still come back and win. And Christie’s commitment to the issue is arguable. Right now, he’s facing a conservative threat in the June G.O.P. primary; opposing gay marriage may be an act of political survival. But, generally speaking, Christie has moderate political instincts. Maybe he’ll change his view if he’s elected governor and if the Legislature then passes a gay-marriage bill.


4. New York: The governor has proposed allowing it and a majority of the state’s residents support it. But the prospects for gay-marriage legislation still aren’t very good, mainly because of the State Senate—where Democrats outnumber Republicans by just two and some of the Democrats are adamantly opposed to it.

Governor David Paterson’s recent decision to push for gay marriage may have more to do with his own political interests—shoring up a Democratic base that, along with the rest of the state, has abandoned him as his governorship has collapsed—than with the actual prospects for legalization. Still, with plenty of votes in the Assembly and with Paterson’s probable gubernatorial successor (Andrew Cuomo) in favor of gay marriage, the switch of a few Senate votes could make it a reality in the near future.


5. Washington: This state is probably farther from legalization than the others, but there is also clear momentum. In 1998, the Legislature voted to ban gay marriage, but since then the tide has turned. In 2007, Governor Christine Gregoire signed a domestic partner law. A year later, the law was expanded and again signed by Gregoire. Now, the Legislature has just passed a further expansion of the law, one that would essentially allow gay marriage without actually calling it “gay marriage.” Gregoire has said she will sign it on May 18. Opponents are launching an effort to fight the pending law through a referendum, but polling shows strong support for it—and for full gay marriage, for that matter. It seems only a matter of time before Washington legalizes it.

Which State Will Be the Next to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage?