Spurred by the controversial court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and the sight of couples lined up for weddings on both coasts, voters in Missouri took out a legal insurance policy this week by passing a constitutional amendment outlawing the practice here.
In so doing, Missouri may be a harbinger of similar votes set to occur in at least nine states this fall. After all Missouri, as a demographic microcosm of the country, has a reputation as a political bellwether.
The vote Tuesday, with a lopsided 70 percent of state residents supporting the amendment, was the first of its kind since the Massachusetts ruling. In the months since that decision, opponents of same-sex marriage have pushed for constitutional amendments in states with receptive electorates, including Missouri, and for a tougher goal: to amend the US Constitution.
Both sides in this contentious debate agree on one key point: "that we have to convince the American middle to succeed," says Matt Coles, a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights project.
For gay activists, who would have been shocked to win here despite a well-financed campaign against the amendment, it's another obstacle on a crowded national course on an emotional issue. "What we did wrong in Missouri was we just didn't have enough time to engage people," Mr. Coles says.
Missouri, like a majority of US states, already had a law barring homosexual marriage. Now it will have constitutional insurance against a court challenge to that provision: an amendment declaring marriage "to exist only between a man and a woman." The measure passed in every county except the city of St. Louis. Many out-state counties known for their conservative religious bent voted for it by margins of more than 8-to1.
At the Alliance for Marriage, Matt Daniels, president of the coalition pushing a federal marriage amendment, sees the Missouri vote as "a great bellwether of things to come but the ultimate battle is over the federal marriage amendment."
"Nonetheless, all of these state votes are important," he adds, "They help us to develop the momentum and the infrastructure at the state level to fight the ratification battle for the federal marriage amendment." It takes 38 states to ratify a constitutional amendment.
And the other state battles this fall will not necessarily parallel the Missouri pattern. The simplicity of Missouri's language helped get the motion out of the Missouri legislature quickly and made it easier to pass. The battle may be tougher for the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, which refuses to separate the question of marriage from the issue of legal benefits for gay and lesbian couples.
"We don't see it as two different issues," explains Phil Burress, chairman of the coalition and president of Citizens for Community Values. "What good does it do to protect the name of marriage and let it be called something else? It's the duck test. If you give away the benefits of marriage and call it something else it's marriage," he adds.
Burress scoffs at the Missouri language, saying "If the legislature had done it in Ohio, it would probably say the same thing. We went the petition route, so we wrote it." He is waiting to find out if the state of Ohio will accept the signatures needed to put the amendment question on the November ballot.
This year the issue is inextricably entwined with presidential politics. Like Missouri and Ohio, most of the states facing amendment votes are battleground states where a highly emotional referendum could draw more voters in November. On a more pragmatic note, most are states where amendment proponents could expect to win without spending a lot of money or political capital. The list includes Montana, Oregon, Georgia, Mississippi, Utah, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Michigan. North Dakota may be added this week. Louisiana votes Sept. 18.
Missouri's vote "makes the grade of the uphill battle that much steeper," says Rea Carey, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. That might explain the effort in the taskforce's post-vote press release to squeeze lemonade out of lemons by emphasizing the one-third of voters who rejected the amendment. They could point to other small victories: Allies included the editorial page of every major newspaper and numerous clergy.
Says Carey, "To many of us it seems quite transparent that these constitutional amendments, which is public gay bashing, are one of the last acceptable get-out-the vote strategies being put forth."
In Missouri, a twist in state law giving the governor the power to select the ballot for a referendum changed the timing when Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, pushed it onto the August primary ballot. Proponents argued that Holden was trying to keep turnout low; others say he wanted to take the issue off the table for November. Holden lost his bid for a second term.
Despite the focus on the current rash of state amendments, both sides agree on one other point: The real outcome will be decided further down the road.
Matt Daniels of the Alliance for Marriage sees it as "a dress rehearsal for the debate which has been forced on us by the courts."
Matt Coles of the ACLU is watching a younger generation that favors marriage between same-sex couple preparing to enter the voting pool. "The only election that's good for us is in about five years."