The New State-by-State Fight for Gay Marriage

A leading advocacy group aims for 60 percent national support, a national law to overturn DOMA, and a majority of Americans in states with gay marriage.
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Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case, get married in Los Angeles on June 28. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

For advocates of gay marriage, the Supreme Court's two recent decisions on the subject were a watershed moment. Now the question is: What next?

With jurisprudence, public opinion, and state laws all seeming to be moving in their direction, the future looks bright for their cause. But the campaigners at Freedom to Marry, the only national group solely devoted to gay-marriage advocacy, believe it is time not to rest on laurels but to fight harder than ever. And they have a plan to do just that.

The group's new strategic plan, revealed exclusively to The Atlantic and scheduled to be formally announced Tuesday, sets ambitious targets for the near term: By 2016, it says, the majority of Americans should live in states where gay marriage is legal, and national public approval should top 60 percent. (Currently, 30 percent live in such states, and the issue generally polls between 50 and 58 percent.) The group also hopes to see passage of federal legislation fully repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, only part of which was invalidated by the recent Supreme Court challenge.

The group, which was instrumental in funding and directing four winning gay-marriage ballot campaigns in 2012, has set its sights on four states where it will push for legal same-sex marriage in 2013-14, whether through state legislation or ballot initiative: Illinois, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Oregon. This year alone, it will devote $2 million to these efforts. In 2015-16, Freedom to Marry plans to work in as many as six additional states, and it has hired a respected operative with experience in both ballot and legislative campaigns to oversee all its state-level efforts.

Evan Wolfson, Freedom to Marry's founder and president, said it's important to keep up the momentum in favor of same-sex marriage. "The only thing I come close to worrying about is that people think it's going to take care of itself," Wolfson, a veteran activist and litigator who has been working for gay marriage for three decades, told me. "I am very confident we're going to get there, but it just doesn't do itself. We have to do the work."

Three states voted to legalize gay marriage in November 2012 -- Maine, Maryland, and Washington -- while another, Minnesota, voted against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage in the state. It was the first time such an initiative had been voted down; the Supreme Court recently invalidated California's ban, known as Proposition 8, but 29 states still have constitutional bans on gay marriage.

The Minnesota vote did not legalize gay marriage in the state, but activists pushed on to the Legislature -- which flipped from Republican to Democratic control in 2012 -- and won passage of a gay-marriage law in May. Both the ballot campaign and the legislative push were led by Richard Carlbom, a young operative who got his start in politics when he served as mayor of the small Minnesota town of St. Joseph at age 23. Carlbom, who will marry his partner in St. Paul in December, has just been hired by Freedom to Marry to serve as its state director.

With the many recent victories, activists all over the country are eager to move their states forward, Carlbom told me. But the successes to date have depended on a deliberate, strategic approach, and it will be important to proceed in the same careful manner, he said.

"We understand the excitement [of all the recent progress] is going to trigger an incredible amount of activity in various different states," he said. "We have to go in and make sure there's a plan to win in place."

Freedom to Marry is backing a 2014 ballot initiative in Oregon and will announce Tuesday a $250,000 contribution to that campaign. The group will donate another $250,000 today to three other states where it hopes to see gay marriage achieved through legislation:

* Illinois: Earlier this year, the state Senate passed a gay-marriage bill, but the state House declined to take it up. If the measure can get through the legislature, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn says he will sign it.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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