Gay-Rights Groups Hope Courts Will Overturn Marriage Bans

Eleven states passed measures banning homosexual unions.

While the presidential race came down to the wire, there was a landslide victory in Tuesday's election that went to ... traditional marriages.

All of the 11 states considering constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages approved the measures, most by wide margins, a major defeat for the gay and lesbian community, which just six months ago won the right to marry in Massachusetts.

"We're obviously disappointed," Sean Cahill, director of the Policy Institute for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said Thursday. "We believe that basic rights should not be put up for a popular vote in a secret ballot. We don't think majorities should be able to decide what rights to withhold from minority groups. That this is happening goes against a fundamental principal."

While Oregon's measure passed with 57 percent of the vote, the margin was much wider in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio and Utah. In Mississippi, 86 percent of voters supported the same-sex marriage ban.

The amendments in Oregon, Mississippi and Montana outlaw gay marriage, whereas the measures in the other eight states also ban civil unions, in some instances also including heterosexual unmarried couples.

"What this means is that at least 2.2 million people in gay and unmarried heterosexual couples are no longer eligible for basic protections like heath insurance, hospital visitations, inheritance rights, second-parent adoption, things like that," Cahill said. "Thousands are getting healthcare through a municipality or public university who are now going to lose that."

Ever more so than Republican George W. Bush's win over Democrat John Kerry, the passing of the anti-same-sex marriage measures shows a divide between the youth vote and rest of the country. Although final numbers aren't in yet, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said exit polls show most young people were against the measures.

"The Chronicle of Higher Education recently did a poll of college freshman and found that a majority supported marriage equality," Cahill said. "It's not surprising. There's so many kids out in junior high and high school now. Gays are on TV, gay issues are talked about in public debate, so people think about gay issues a lot more than 20 years ago, and that all helps in breaking down the stigma. It makes sense that younger people are more open-minded on this issue. They don't understand what the big deal is."

While young voters were certainly a presence in the election (see "20 Million Loud And Then Some: Young Voters Storm The Polls"), Cahill suggested they can continue to make an impact by talking with their family and friends about the issue. "All we're seeking is equal treatment under the law, not anything more than that," he said.

After Tuesday's passage of the same-sex marriage bans, conservatives are now urging Congress to follow suit by approving a federal constitutional amendment that would expand the ban nationwide, preventing state court rulings like the one in Massachusetts. The same measure was introduced in the summer after other states began marrying homosexual couples, but it failed to get the necessary two-thirds' support in the House and Senate because of strong Democratic opposition.

Matt Daniels, whose Alliance for Marriage supported the state amendments, told reporters Tuesday's victory was a "prelude to the real battle," and said he would push for a federal marriage amendment. (A request for an interview with Daniels was not granted by press time.)

Gay-rights groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the state amendments.

"The reason we have a judicial system is to prevent against moral tyranny," Cahill said. "We're hopeful over the long term these initiatives will be found to violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution and be struck down, but that's assuming a lot of the Supreme Court that I don't think we can with Bush being re-elected, as he will likely appoint two or three justices."

Adding to gay-rights groups' frustration is that it's widely believed the marriage issue was put on ballots, especially in swing states like Ohio and Michigan, to bring out more conservative voters.

"It also detracted attention from other issues, like global warming, the budget deficit, the Iraq war," Cahill said. "And it helped the religious right raise money, and they have a combined budget of at least $250 million a year, which allows them to promote a broad agenda, which includes prayer in public schools, opposing sex education, opposing affirmative action. They have a very anti-youth agenda."

If there is a silver lining to Tuesday's election, Cahill said, it's that exit polls nationwide found that three out of five voters believe homosexuals have the right to either marriage or civil unions.

Also, in Massachusetts, all of the incumbent legislators who supported equal rights for same-sex couples won re-election, and in Cincinnati, voters repealed a 1993 measure that banned laws supporting gay rights, which was the last such measure like it in America.

Idaho and North Carolina voters also elected their first openly gay politicians, and a gay woman was elected county sheriff in Dallas.

"We fell short of the religious conservatives, but people shouldn't get demoralized," Cahill said.