This fall, opponents of marriage equality will lose a much-beloved talking point: that in every state in which same-sex marriage has gone on the ballot, voters have rejected it. On November 6, the freedom to marry someone of the same sex is up for a vote in four states: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. Each state's initiative and situation is quite different, but in at least one (Maine), and possibly three (Maine, Maryland, and Washington), voters are going to offer marriage licenses to their lesbian and gay neighbors.
Let's start by looking at Maryland. The backstory: In February, the Maryland legislature passed, and on March 1, Governor Martin O'Malley enthusiastically signed, a marriage-equality law. Named in jujitsu fashion, "The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act" explicitly addressed the canard that allowing civil same-sex marriage would force churches to perform religious marriages that they oppose theologically. It set to take effect in January, but as expected, opponents launched a petition drive to put the measure on the ballot after it passed.
If this were a normal campaign—a race for Senate, say—I would say the polling looks very good. There's a ten-point spread in favor of same-sex marriage, with the latest Baltimore Sun survey showing that 49 percent of likely voters say they'll vote "yes" on Question 6 and only 39 percent saying they'll vote "no." (Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition of pro-same-sex-marriage groups, has some internal polling that looks slightly better, but not by much.) But I don't believe the spread. Over the years, I've seen too many ballot-box defeats on marriage to be anything but jaundiced. In the past, those undecideds vote against us, and anywhere from two to four points of support drop away at the ballot box. If that pattern continues in Maryland, the final vote would be 47 percent in favor and 53 percent against.
Part of the reason for my skepticism is that I'm not sure that Marylanders for Marriage Equality has had enough time to run the kind of grass-roots, door-to-door campaign needed to get ordinary folks—the ones whose lives don't revolve around politics or LGBT rights—to think about why they might vote for what seems to many like a change in marriage's fundamental definition. Yes, nationally, Americans have been steadily changing their minds by a few points a year, and a very slight majority now supports opening marriage to same-sex couples. But people change their minds slowly, after one-to-one conversations about the fact that lesbians and gay men want to marry the people they love.
But Maryland marriage-equality forces have a couple things going for them that we haven't had before. First, equal marriage is the yes vote. Past ballot measures have all read some variation of "Marriage is between one man and one woman." Unless you've thought about it carefully, and talked with folks about why you might not want to exclude your lesbian cousin or gay neighbor, it's hard to vote against what you've been raised to believe is a dictionary definition. But the ballot language in Maryland makes it clear that if you vote "yes," you are voting to let your lesbian and gay neighbors get married—not to change anything about religious marriage.
Kevin Nix, a spokesperson for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, says that the ballot language is extremely "clear, direct, and simple." That's helpful, and unlike previous ballot language in any other state. It's an advantage to have very strong language, which is the last thing voters see." The referendum is titled the "Civil Marriage Protection Act," and will be followed by this paragraph describing it:
Establishes that Maryland's civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.
Second, when President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage, he jolted the African American community's opinions on the issue from strongly against to strongly in favor. Overnight, support for same-sex marriage among African Americans jumped from 39 percent to 59 percent. No one expected those numbers to remain steady, but a recent Baltimore Sun poll had African Americans 58 percent in favor of the law. That will of course fall at the ballot box—but it's still much better than anyone imagined even a few years ago. Maryland has an unusually high percentage of African Americans—nearly a quarter of the state—so that opinion makes an enormous difference. It will help to have Obama at the top of the ballot; a vote for him could subtly reinforce the impulse to vote with him on marriage equality.
As a result, it's no surprise that both sides are focusing their ground efforts in large part on those African Americans and their religious beliefs. Notoriously, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM)—the primary funder of opposition to same-sex marriage nationwide—wrote in a leaked memo:
The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots …
Flyers have started showing up in minority neighborhoods, on cars and in doors, purportedly from a group called "Jump the Broom for Marriages." I assume that NOM, which has funded most of the anti-marriage-equality campaigns for several years now, was behind this. NOM is notorious for hiding its donors and attacking finance-disclosure laws across the country. (Didn't anyone at NOM headquarters think about the irony in the fact that slaves once had to "jump the broom" when their owners didn't allow them to marry?) Metro Weekly has pictures of the flyers, reporting:
One flier contained a picture of a heterosexual African-American couple getting married, with the words: "If my mommy is my daddy, and my daddy is my mommy, what does that make my aunt?" followed by a biblical citation reading: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."
The more public and prominent opposition to marriage equality, however, is coming from NOM's local incarnation, the Maryland Marriage Alliance. The group has just rolled out its television ads, which have a much softer focus than the flyers, saying that "everyone is entitled to love and respect" but that "children do better with a married mom and dad." (Do we have to review, here, how that inaccurate claim completely skews the research, which shows that children's well-being and health outcomes is related to whether they are in stable families, not whether they have parents of different genders? I didn't think so. Let's move on.)
Meanwhile, Marylanders for Marriage Equality has gotten prominent local black ministers to speak out publicly and repeatedly for a yes vote on Question 6. The campaign gathered African-American pastors for a press conference—the first such ever—to support the law. Here's how Metro Weekly described the event, which had ripples throughout Maryland (emphases are mine):
Led by the Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of the 8,000-member Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., 11 ministers expressed their support for civil marriage equality, even if their particular churches oppose same-sex marriage.
"As pastors and clergy leaders, we are here today to declare our unequivocal support for Maryland"s Civil Marriage Protection Act and to dispel the myth that all African-American pastors are fundamentally opposed to the idea of marriage equality," Coates told the audience at the Press Club…
"Admittedly, many of us find the idea of voting on someone else's civil rights a bit disconcerting," Coates continued. "When the rights of the minority are submitted to a vote, all too often the minority loses."
The equality's side lead television ads are explicit, featuring two prominent African-American ministers—Reverend Donte Hickman of the Southern Baptist Church, and Reverend Coates—asking people to vote in favor of Question 6. Hickman says he wouldn't want the government denying his rights because of someone else's religious beliefs (take that, Southern Baptists!) and notes that the law protects churches from performing marriages they oppose. The campaign has also rolled out videos of long-married heterosexual couples (like the Nugents, who say they are "cradle Catholics" and deeply involved in their church) who want their gay children to be able to marry just like the rest of their children, and for the same reasons. (You can watch all their ads here.)
Kevin Nix told me that "the opposition doesn't have a ground game except in the churches, which is potent and important—but they're not doing what we're doing, and never have. We have been getting our message out ahead of time about what their arguments are, trying to set the record straight."
The last and quite small factor that the equality forces have on their side: Maryland already has some legally married same-sex couples. LGBT couples in the state can easily cross the border into Washington, D.C. to tie the knot, and the state has already made clear that it will recognize those marriages. I don't know how many have done this, but however many or few, each of those couples helps to dispel fears simply by existing. If D.C.'s same-sex marriages didn't cause the locusts to descend, why would anything change if Maryland's registrars perform such marriages as well?
I hope I am wrong, but I am afraid that the measure won't pass. My guess is that 49 percent in favor will turn into 47 percent at the polls. But whether or not they win this time, funding them will make a difference. In 2009, Maine voted against marriage equality—but the pro-equality side's education campaign continued without a pause. If Question 6 is defeated, Marylanders for Marriage Equality has to do the same, continuing the campaign as if it never stopped—educating one by one, door to door, in community forums, and every other possible way—and then pop the question again in two years, just as they're doing in Maine, where we're going to win.
Next time: Marry Me in ... Maine?