Supporters Of Gay Marriage Appear To Gather Momentum

Polls show a majority of Americans now support gay marriage. During Supreme Court's arguments last week, Chief Justice John Roberts marveled at the political muscle advocates for same-sex marriage appeared to be flexing. But the political path for gay marriage could be long and bumpy.

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And I'm David Greene. Good morning. The demonstrators for and against gay marriage who gathered outside the Supreme Court last week have gone home. Now, it's up to the nine justices to decide how same-sex marriage should be treated by the federal government, the state of California, and possibly other states as well. Some commentators suggest that no matter how the court rules, gay marriages will eventually be recognized nationwide, thanks to growing public support. But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the political path to that outcome could be long and bumpy.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: During the Supreme Court's arguments last week, Chief Justice John Roberts marveled at the political muscle advocates for same-sex marriage appear to be flexing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPREME COURT ARGUMENT)

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.

HORSLEY: Supporters of gay marriage have been on a bit of a hot streak lately. Voters in three states approved the idea in November. And national field director Marty Rouse of the Human Rights Campaign says as many as four more states could follow over the next couple of months.

MARTY ROUSE: In the next several weeks legislatures are hoping to consider marriage equality in the state of Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, and Illinois. And there's a reasonable chance for us to be successful in one if not all four of those before the Supreme Court rules, actually.

HORSLEY: If all four states move, and if gay marriage is upheld in California, one in three Americans would live in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized - roughly double the number who do today. Advocates also have their sights set on New Jersey, Hawaii, and Oregon over the next year and a half. But after that, Rouse says, the map gets a lot more challenging.

ROUSE: It's one thing to win marriage equality in Delaware or Rhode Island, it's another thing to win marriage equality in Mississippi or Wyoming.

HORSLEY: While most national polls show a majority of Americans now favor same-sex marriage, results vary with age, education, church attendance and where you live. Young people, who are the biggest supporters of gay marriage, are also the least likely to vote, especially in off-year or primary elections.

What's more, dozens of states have erected firewalls to prevent gay marriage - often through constitutional amendments that will be difficult to undo. The National Organization for Marriage, which champions such firewalls, did not return phone calls for this story. The group won its last battle less than a year ago in North Carolina. A newly Republican legislature there put the issue before voters during a primary election, and voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage by more than 20 points.

STUART CAMPBELL: It was a tough day. A tough night.

HORSLEY: Stuart Campbell led the unsuccessful campaign to stop the ban. He heads the group Equality North Carolina and he also has a personal stake in the issue.

CAMPBELL: I've been with my partner for 16 years. And we've never lived in a state where marriage equality is present. So, you know, it would be nice for us to do at some point.

HORSLEY: Campbell says he's still committed to same-sex marriage as a long-term goal. And he thinks voters will become more accepting as gays and lesbians continue to become more visible. At the same time, Campbell says such visibility is far from uniform around the country and in many areas gays still face discrimination in the workplace, at church, and even at home.

CAMPBELL: There's a lot of folks, especially in rural areas, who find it a lot more difficult to be open about who they are. And so we are striving for a world where it doesn't matter who you love or who you are. But that's still a little bit of a ways away.

HORSLEY: That's not to minimize the dramatic shift in public opinion towards gay marriage that's occurred over the last decade. As lawyers told the Supreme Court, there's been a sea change. But Marty Rouse of the Human Rights Campaign says, if the court decides to leave the fate of same-sex marriage to state lawmakers and the ballot box, don't expect that sea change to wash away all the old laws anytime soon.

ROUSE: We have come so far, so fast. But when you look at history, we could have a longer row to hoe here. And so we have to be prepared for a multi-year strategy and a multi-year battle. And while we anxiously await the Supreme Court decision in the end of June, we know that we have to plan for months and perhaps years ahead.

HORSLEY: Rouse calls this a historic civil rights moment, but a moment that may need another decade or more before it's resolved. Scott Horsley, NRP News, Washington.

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