How will New York's gay marriage law affect the 2012 election and beyond?

New York’s new same-sex marriage law could change the dynamic in next year’s elections – particularly for President Obama, who’s tried to straddle the issue.

Tina Fineberg/AP
Christopher Goeken, left, his partner Glenn Magpantay, right, and their son Malcolm Magpantay, 4, from the Queens borough of New York, smile before the start of the Gay Pride Parade in New York Sunday. Goeken and Magpantay have been together for 18 years.

The passage of a same-sex marriage bill in New York State was a landmark event in one of the most profound and contentious issues in US politics today.

But what comes next? And will it have any impact on the 2012 elections, especially President Obama’s reelection bid?

Obama says everyone should have the same legal rights, as he told gay activists at a New York fundraiser Friday night. But his position on same-sex marriage is “evolving,” he says, as if he quite can’t bring himself to commit to a position already endorsed by former first lady Laura Bush, former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, and former vice president Dick Cheney.

As the Hill newspaper points out, the issue could rise to political significance early next year when Republican leaders in New Hampshire hope to repeal the state law allowing same-sex marriage – right around the time of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary election.

But beyond 2012, Columbia Law School professor Suzanne Goldberg tells Reuters, "Having same-sex marriage in New York will have tremendous moral and political force for the rest of the country – in part because New York is a large state, and in part because it hasn't come easily,''

But, approving same-sex marriage at the state level is not necessarily a done deal. Elected judges in Iowa who upheld that state’s law have been defeated at the polls. Voters in Maine repealed a law allowing same-sex marriage. And in California, the legal fight over the Prop. 8 ballot measure banning same-sex marriage continues – most recently involving questions over whether a gay judge can fairly hear the case.

In all, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states have laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman (30 of them as part of constitutional language), and so far there seems to be no rush to follow New York.

Still, public opinion seems to be moving inexorably in favor of granting full marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.

In 1996, according to Gallup, just 27 percent of those polled said same-sex marriages should be recognized as legally valid. That figure rose to the low 40s, where it stood through most of this decade, then pushed through the majority mark to 53 percent this year.

But for politicians – particularly Obama – looking not to offend any potential voters, the issue remains tricky. Large majorities of Democrats (69 percent) and Independents (59 percent) are OK with same-sex marriage. So are younger voters by a wide margin (70 percent). But among Republicans and older voters, there is far less support. (Another complicating factor for Obama: Many black religious leaders oppose same-sex marriage.)

In the wake of the New York vote, many observers point out that it’s knowing gay or lesbian couples that makes the most difference in changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage. That seems obviously true for Mr. Cheney, whose daughter is gay.

“As gays and lesbians have talked with family and friends about why marriage matters, hearts have opened and minds have changed,” writes civil rights attorney Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, on his Huffington Post blog.

Among prominent gay journalists, there are mixed feelings following passage of New York’s law, which made it the sixth and most populous state to legalize same-sex marriage.

“There are 44 more states to go and a rowdy presidential campaign season that is bound to roil a whole range of political bases,” writes Howard Chua-Eoan in Time magazine. “And who knows if the legalization of gay marriage in New York, because it is New York, will actually work against marriage equality across the country. Could an exodus of gay people from the rest of the US to the Empire State sap the will (and pocketbooks) of campaigns to legalize marriage in, say, Missouri or Minnesota or Kansas?”

That may well be true.

But it’s also probably true, as gay New York Times columnist Frank Bruni writes, that “this issue will increasingly transcend partisan politics and hinge less on party affiliation or archaic religious doctrine than on the intimate, everyday dynamics of family and friendship.”

“The wish and push to be married cast gay men and lesbians in the most benign, conservative light imaginable, not as enemies of tradition but as aspirants to it,” Bruni writes in his Sunday column. “In the quest for integration and validation, saying “I do” to “I do” is much more effective – not to mention more reflective of the way most gay people live – than strutting in leather on a parade float. We’re not trying to undermine the institution of marriage, a task ably handled by the likes of Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards and too many other onetime role models to mention. We’re paying it an enormous compliment.”

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