Look for same-sex marriage to be a flashpoint in states once again this year, both in legislatures and at the ballot box.
The governors of Maryland and Washington state, both Democrats, have pledged to press for legislation to make gay marriage legal. "It's time, it's the right thing to do, and I will introduce a bill to do it," Washington Governor Christine Gregoire announced this month. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has vowed he would renew efforts this year after a measure to legalize same-sex marriage fell short last year and was withdrawn.
Currently Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York, plus the District of Columbia, have laws legalizing same-sex marriage.
If Maryland and Washington join those states, opponents of gay marriage will try to collect enough signatures to bring the issue before voters via ballot referendum this November. In Washington state, attorney Stephen Pidgeon has already filed a state initiative that would reaffirm the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman.
Voters in Minnesota will see on this year's ballot a proposed constitutional amendment from the Legislature that likewise defines marriage as the union between a man and woman. While constitutional amendment legislation cannot be vetoed, Governor Mark Dayton last year issued a "symbolic veto" of the measure.
North Carolina voters will consider a similar, but broader question. A proposal from that state's Legislature goes beyond banning gay marriage and bars civil unions and domestic partnerships, advocates say. Voters will take up the question May 12 during the Republican primary. Unlike traditional marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships are invalid outside the state in which they are granted except in states that expressly accept them. Civil unions also do not provide any federal marriage benefits, such as Social Security, family medical leave or federal taxation policy.
Same-sex marriage did not appear on any statewide ballot in 2010, for the first time in more than a decade, but it has been a major ballot issue in most recent election years. In 2004, voters in 13 states took up the issue, rewriting their constitutions to limit marriage to between a man and a woman.
While New York's gay marriage law got most of the national attention last year, Delaware, Hawaii and Rhode Island all passed civil union laws in 2011, and a previously passed civil union law in Illinois went into effect. Along with New Jersey, those are the only states with civil union laws, says Sarah Warbelow, director of state legislative issues for the Human Rights Campaign, but domestic partnership laws in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state are equivalent to legalized civil unions, she says.
Meanwhile, Democrats in New Jersey are pushing for a gay marriage law rather than the state's current civil union statute. "This is about doing what's right and ensuring full equal and civil rights for all New Jerseyans," said Senate President Steve Sweeney, who said he "made a mistake" two years ago when he abstained on a gay marriage measure and it failed.
The New Jersey delegation to Congress wrote in a letter that it was impossible to "fix" the state's civil union law to ensure the same protections and rights afforded to heterosexual married couples, including for example, hospital visitation and employee benefits. The state's Republican governor, Chris Christie, has said in the past that he does not favor same-sex marriage.
Efforts in New Hampshire would go in the other direction and roll back that state's same-sex marriage law. Groups began running radio and TV ads against the repeal in early January, just as the GOP presidential contenders and media converged in that state for first 2012 presidential primary. Democratic Governor John Lynch is likely to veto any measure that would reverse the gay marriage law.