Supporters and activists routinely ask gay couples to meet with reluctant lawmakers to put a human face on same-sex marriage. They file lawsuits. They use unexpected allies — in some cases, churches — to spread their message.
It’s a strategy that has shown results, with state bans falling in courts at a brisk clip, most recently in Idaho and Arkansas. And it was one that was first tried in Massachusetts, where 10 years ago Saturday, gay couples became the first in the nation to legally tie the knot.
“We’ve really used a spirit of relentlessness,” says Marc Solomon, the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry. “That’s the way we’ve approached this entire movement from the get-go in Massachusetts and around the country.”
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. Judges in seven other states have struck down bans on gay marriage, though officials are appealing.
Opposition remains stiff in many places. Critics point out that most states still do not allow gay marriage and that in most of those that do, it was the work of courts or legislatures, not the will of the people.
Only Washington, Maryland and Maine have approved gay marriage through a public vote, while residents of 30 states have approved constitutional amendments to ban it.
As supporters have racked up victories, opponents have shifted their tactics. They still argue that gay marriage will damage the traditional institution, but they’ve intensified their arguments on religious freedom and states’ rights.
“I think the notion that it is a freight train of momentum has been greatly exaggerated and is just not true,” says John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage.
What is undeniable, though, is a change in public attitudes.
Recent polls show that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage; in 2004, only about 30 percent favored it. The U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a key part of a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Forty percent of Americans now live in states where gay people can marry.
“What’s really interesting here in Massachusetts is that it has really become no big deal,” says Robyn Ochs, who married Peg Preble the day same-sex marriage became legal. “When we were fighting to protect marriage equality in Massachusetts, there were all these predictions of doom and destruction, and terrible things would happen. You know, when we got married on May 17, 2004, on May 18, the buses still ran, children still had to go to school and the grocery stores still had food on the shelves.”
Preble chimes in: “The sky didn’t fall.”
Here’s how it unfolded:
The legal group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders sued the Massachusetts Department of Health on behalf of seven same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses in 2001.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November 2003 that barring same-sex couples from marrying violated the state constitution. Weddings began six months later.
Opponents tried to overturn the ruling through a state constitutional amendment. The effort failed after intense lobbying by same-sex marriage supporters, who asked gay couples to meet with their lawmakers and talk about what their marriages meant to them.
Solomon, a leader of the campaign in Massachusetts, and several other veterans of that drive have been working in other states since then.
They’ve worked to build support among lawmakers, oust others, and recruit business leaders and other prominent people to their side. In Indiana, executives of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and engine maker Cummins have argued against a proposed ban, saying it could hinder worker recruitment.
A judge on Tuesday struck down Idaho’s ban, ruling on a lawsuit brought by two couples legally married in other states and two who were denied marriage licenses in Idaho. An appeal is pending.
Gay marriages resumed in Arkansas on Thursday after a judge there struck down all state laws banning such marriages. He refused to put his decision on hold.
Meanwhile, opponents in Virginia, Indiana, Texas, Utah and many other states are fighting to maintain bans. Lawsuits are pending in about 30 states where gay couples can’t marry.
At least one Southern activist is applying lessons learned in Massachusetts.
The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara says that while she was attending divinity school in Boston from 2007 to 2010, she met with advocates to develop a blueprint for the Campaign for Southern Equality, of which she is now the executive director.
“One of the key lessons, from having watched Massachusetts in real time and talking with folks in the years afterward, was the role of faith leaders and faith communities,” says Beach-Ferrara, a minister in the United Church of Christ.
Southern Equality took that principle and came up with “We Do,” a campaign that encourages gay couples to request marriage licenses in their hometowns. (The group was not involved in the lawsuit in Arkansas.)
In Utah, the powerful Mormon church has been a leading voice against same-sex marriage. A voter-approved ban there was overturned by a federal judge in December, and a ruling from an appeals court is expected within months.
“While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not,” Neil Anderson, one of the church’s top leaders, recently told members.
Opponents have argued that laws requiring businesses to work with gay couples could infringe on religion.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group, has worked on cases including a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake, a Washington state florist who wouldn’t provide flowers for same-sex weddings, and a New Mexico studio that did not want to photograph a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.
“People will have to choose between their moral obligations and their religious faith,” says Jim Campbell, an attorney for the alliance.
It lost the case in New Mexico when the state’s highest court found that the studio’s refusal violated the state Human Rights Act “in the same way as if it had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races.”