WASHINGTON -- With a victory in the Supreme Court now behind them, backers of same-sex marriage declared a new goal Wednesday -- a five-year campaign to strike down the laws in the remaining states that prohibit such unions.
The legal trail that led from the passage of California’s Proposition 8 to its invalidation took five years, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told a cheering group of supporters massed on the sidewalk outside the Supreme Court.
“Within five years, we will bring marriage equality to all 50 states,” he pledged.
Achieving that goal would require a return trip to the high court. First, however, the campaign will unfold in legislatures and ballot initiatives, said Evan Wolfson, head of Freedom to Marry and a leading strategist in the marriage-equality campaign. Gay-rights groups hope that if enough states adopt laws allowing same-sex marriages, the Supreme Court will be willing to overturn the remaining statutes, much as it did in 1967 when it struck down laws that banned interracial marriages.
“The strategy has always been to secure a critical mass of states and a critical mass of public opinion” in favor of same-sex marriages, “and with that climate, engage the Supreme Court,” Wolfson said.
Opponents of same-sex marriage will try to fight state-by-state and argue that the issue should be settled locally, not nationally. Public opinion nationally has been moving rapidly in favor of same-sex marriage, but that shift has been notably uneven, with less support for gay unions in the South and parts of the Midwest. Thirty-seven states currently allow marriages only for opposite-sex couples.
Wednesday’s rulings from the high court indicate that a majority of the justices sympathize with the legal arguments in favor of same-sex marriage. But strategists for the marriage-equality movement believe that the justices will be reluctant to put those arguments into effect so long as the great majority of states continue to reject such unions.
With the likely resumption of same-sex marriages in California, about one-third of the nation’s population will be living in states that allow gay couples to wed.
The next targets for gay-rights groups will be Illinois, where the Legislature came close to legalizing same-sex marriages earlier this spring and may consider the issue again later this year, and New Jersey, where a same-sex marriage bill already passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.
Next year, backers of same-sex marriage are expected to push for ballot measures in Oregon and Nevada and legislative action in Hawaii. A lawsuit is pending in New Mexico, where state law is unclear about whether same-sex marriages are allowed.
Even if supporters of same-sex marriage were to win all those battles, however, that would still leave 31 states with bans, many of them written into state constitutions. Strategists are also eyeing some more conservative states in which they hope a concerted campaign could win approval of same-sex marriage laws, but they concede that in many, only a court ruling will lead to victory for their cause.