Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday to ban same-sex marriage -- the first such test of the issue since it rose to national prominence when a Massachusetts court legalized gay and lesbian weddings last fall. Voters in 10 other states face similar ballot measures in coming months.
About 70% of voters agreed to add this sentence to the Missouri Constitution: "To be valid and recognized in this state, a marriage shall exist only between a man and a woman."
"We're the Show Me state and today we've shown the nation that we the people value traditional marriage," said Vicky Hartzler, a former state legislator who led the drive for the amendment.
Though Missouri had a law banning gay marriages, activists began pushing for a constitutional amendment after the highest court in Massachusetts granted full marriage rights to same-sex couples. In that ruling, which became effective in May, the court majority said it could find no "constitutionally adequate reason" to block same-sex couples from marrying.
As Massachusetts legislators tried in vain to find a way around the court ruling, mayors and county clerks in San Francisco, Oregon, New York and elsewhere began marrying same-sex couples with great fanfare, even without clear legal authority. Images of these gay and lesbian weddings began to appear in newspapers and on TV. Courts soon put a stop to those ceremonies but a passionate, polarizing debate had taken hold.
Congress considered amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage but momentum for the change stalled this summer.
Meanwhile, social conservatives in Missouri -- and across the nation -- took action to write into their state constitutions that marriage was exclusively the union of a man and a woman.
"If the will of the people isn't clearly expressed in the constitution ... that leaves us vulnerable to having activist judges dictate new forms of families to the citizens of our state," Hartzler said.
Louisiana votes on a same-sex marriage ban in September. On Nov. 2, constitutional amendments will be on the ballot in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah. Citizens in Ohio and North Dakota have submitted petitions to put the issue to a vote this year, but the signatures have not yet been certified.
And 43 states, including California, have laws or court rulings prohibiting same-sex marriage.
As the first state to vote on a constitutional amendment since the Massachusetts court ruling, Missouri was considered a crucial test of public sentiment. Pundits view the classic swing state as a potential bellwether. Missouri has an electorate evenly split between liberals and conservatives. But the huge margin of victory indicated that support for Amendment 2 cut across party and ideological lines that have divided the state as they have the nation.
Opponents of the measure conceded a crushing loss, but said they would not give up.
"People will try to use this [defeat] as a symbol, but we'll be working with the other states that are going to vote on this. And we'll have some victories. I'm sure of that," said Doug Gray, who managed the campaign against the amendment.
Backed by national gay-rights groups, Gray's group collected nearly $450,000 in donations, enough to air a TV ad in all the state's major markets and to outspend the pro-amendment campaign by at least 20 to 1.
They argued that the amendment was discriminatory.
But they made a tactical decision not to frame the issue as a fight about civil rights.
Instead, volunteers going door-to-door across Missouri made a legalistic pitch. They argued that a constitutional amendment would be redundant. They sought to reassure voters that a "no" vote would not sanction gay weddings -- or even signal approval of the "homosexual lifestyle" -- but would simply protect the state constitution from tampering.
"It frustrated me that I had to push that argument" instead of rallying voters to support gay rights, said Liz Ricks, a high school senior who dedicated most of her summer to campaigning against the measure.
"It hurt every time I said it. But I was willing to make that compromise in hopes of winning the overall fight," Ricks said.
The strategy, however, persuaded few voters.
With less than $20,000 in donations, the pro-amendment forces galvanized what Hartzler called "a very passionate grass-roots effort."
In the final days of the campaign, a dozen communities held "Protect Marriage Chains," setting up picket lines on busy street corners. Churches distributed fliers in their Sunday bulletins. Missouri's Roman Catholic bishops warned in a letter to the faithful that without the amendment, "what God Himself established as marriage seems likely to be redefined." And supporters set out thousands of black-and-white yard signs.
"A lot of people who have never been involved in any kind of election before wanted to participate," said Bev Ehlen, who coordinated thousands of volunteers. "They were saying, 'Now's the time to draw the line.' "
Voting in a suburban elementary school, Mary Popovich, 89, echoed that resolve.
"With all the brains we've got in this country, why don't we come up with something else to call it when two people are living together? Why does it have to be called marriage?" she said, declaring her support for the amendment.
A few moments later, Jean Gould, 86, emerged from the voting booth equally riled up -- but on the other side of the debate. "It's ridiculous to even think about altering the constitution just for this," she said. "If [gays and lesbians] want to live that way, that's their business."
Tuesday's primary election also featured a hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination for governor, pitting incumbent Gov. Bob Holden against state Auditor Claire McCaskill. Holden conceded Tuesday night. McCaskill will face Republican Matt Blunt, the secretary of state, in November.