News Analysis: Evaluating the Next Marriage Equality States
With the exciting victories of Nov. 6 behind them, marriage equality advocates are hardly resting on their laurels. Now that Maine, Washington State and Maryland have been added to New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, the battle moves on to the next most-likely states.
Although it’s anyone’s guess what will happen in a volatile political climate, a few states look especially good for making marriage equality legal. Here, in order, are evaluations of the political mood in Illinois, Rhode Island, Delaware and New Jersey.
In 2011, Illinois passed the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. As the name implies, this legalized civil unions with a special shout-out to the carve-outs for religious denominations (which, in fact, are boilerplate for marriage-equality legislation in every state that has enacted such legislation).
As in other states that have enacted civil unions, they are the "separate-but-equal" equivalent to full-blown marriage. Civil unions have long been looked at as the the middle path between no recognition and marriage.
Advocates consider it to be the equivalent of those "other" separate-but-equal laws, and, like racial segregation, to produce in actuality some very real inequalities that can only be remedied by full-blown marriage.
Vermont was the first state to institute any kind of legal recognition of gay unions way back in 2000. Vermont only moved from civil unions to marriage in 2007.
Most observers don’t expect it to take nearly as long in Illinois.
First, there’s the political map. Despite its nickname, the Land of Lincoln has long been solidly Democrat, thanks to the outsized influence of Chicago, which dominates the state’s politics (much to the annoyance of largely rural GOP Downstate).
With the State Legislature firmly in Democratic hands, and a Democratic governor who would certainly sign a marriage-equality bill into law, it looks good for the legislative process. The state’s sole GOP officeholder, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, is squishy at best in his opposition, which only leaves the usual suspects like the National Organization for Marriage to carry on what would be a lonely fight, along with the still-powerful voice of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago.
Marriage equality now has its own powerful backer, however, in the person of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Although he doesn’t hold statewide office, the mayor of Chicago (like the mayor of New York City) ranks as the second most powerful politician in a state where one city nearly matches the rest of the state in population.
The former chief of staff to president Barack Obama, in a post-election letter to the Sun-Times (itself a statement, since the paper is more conservative than its rival, the Tribune), stated categorically that he believes "Illinois must lead the way" toward full marriage equality.
Emanuel has since stated that he ranks this as one of his three top legislative priorities for the state’s upcoming session. Emanuel’s well-known ability for political strong-arming and his ability to corral various factions could be the key in the Prairie State.
The Nov. 6 victory in Maine leaves Rhode Island as the wallflower at catching the marriage bouquet: All of the other five New England states, plus the giant to the south, New York State, now have full-blown marriage equality.
The state recognizes marriages from other states. Considering how small Rhode Island is, an hour in any direction will lead couples to a same-sex marriage. So at this stage of the game, Rhode Islanders have marriage equality -- as long as they tie the knot somewhere else.
As in Illinois, civil unions became law last year, when marriage supporters in the State Legislature couldn’t see the votes for full marriage equality. The head of Marriage Equality Rhode Island told EDGE that he foresaw such a bill becoming law before the end of next year.
The only thing holding Rhode Island back is its religious demographic: With two-thirds of the state’s population self-identifying as Roman Catholic, the Ocean State probably has the highest percentage of Catholics of any state in the union. But the state has a long history of tolerance, dating back to its very beginnings, when Roger Williams fled the dogmatic Puritans.
In addition, like the rest of New England, it has become solid blue and trends much more liberal than in the past. When you include the encirclement of marriage equality and the de facto recognition of gay marriage anyway, the state’s legislators look likely to pass a bill in the next session.
Look to more stringent religious carve outs than in other states (at least on paper) as one way to mollify Roman Catholic opposition.