How 2014 Was the Beginning of the End for the Gay-Marriage Fight

With a slew of legal rulings striking down bans and popular support on an upward path, the past year set the stage for same-sex marriage legalization nationwide.

It started with Illinois.

On June 1, 2014, same-sex marriage became legal in the state following passage of the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act by the state's Legislature the previous fall. In less than six months, 18 other states followed suit, making 2014 the biggest year for gay-marriage legalization ever, and bringing the total number of states that allow gay couples to wed to 35, plus the District of Columbia. The onslaught of court rulings across the country highlighted how quickly the tide has turned in favor of gay marriage—and shows that 2014 was the beginning of the end for the fight.

The biggest single day for gay-marriage rulings, in October, didn't even involve a court ruling. In a stunning move, the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear any appeals in same-sex marriage cases, clearing the way for legal unions in five states: Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Within weeks, the repercussions of the Court's tacit approval had rippled through 11 other states, legalizing gay marriage in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Earlier in the year, judges in Oregon and Pennsylvania struck down bans in each of those states.

Increasing popular support for same-sex marriage matches the pace of these court decisions. According to a May Gallup Poll, 55 percent of Americans favor gay marriage, up from 42 percent 10 years ago, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize it.

Ted Olson—the prominent Republican lawyer who, with David Boies, successfully overturned California's ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, in the 2013 Supreme Court decision Hollingsworth v. Perry, as well as Virginia's earlier this year—told National Journal that court rulings and public opinion go hand-in-hand.

"Each court decision reinforces public opinion, and the public opinion helps reinforce court decisions," he said. After a same-sex marriage ban is struck down, the media flurry of "people holding hands and beaming with joy that they've now finally had an opportunity to be married" often strikes a chord with those who oppose legalization. This leads to more legal decisions favoring same-sex marriage, Olson said, building more energy for the movement.

Last year's historic Supreme Court decisions striking down a crucial part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, as well as the constitutionality of California's ban, were instrumental gains for the movement, setting the stage for 2014's successes. But this year's rulings gave gay and lesbian couples across the country the right to marry, a more tangible—and catalytic—outcome for the movement.

Part of the rapid shift in opinion also comes from how easily people opposed to gay marriage can be swayed to the other side, according to a study released last week in the journal Science. The experiment showed that just one conversation with a gay canvasser softened voters' attitudes toward same-sex marriage, and that the change in belief had a lasting impact. Politicians, too, are affected by this phenomenon; Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who became a gay-marriage backer after his son came out, is an oft-cited example.

But many more have demurred from trumpeting their opposition to gay marriage for more strategic reasons. Less than a month before the midterm elections, Republican candidates largely stayed silent after the Supreme Court's October non-ruling, a sign that even in deep-red states, they weren't confident that ardent attacks on gay marriage would help them fundraise or win. In Wisconsin, campaigning Gov. Scott Walker, who is a possible 2016 presidential contender, accepted the Court's decision, conceding that the fight against same-sex marriage was "over" in his state.

"Even if they did oppose marriage equality," the Human Rights Campaign's Charlie Joughin told National Journal of midterm candidates, "it was tough to get them to say it out loud. Folks who previously spent a lot of political capital and ran races based on their opposition to equality are now largely staying mum on the issue."

Not all same-sex marriage opponents kept out of the fray, though. And the state of one of the most prominent opponents helps show where the momentum is. The National Organization for Marriage, a major player in the fight against gay unions, spent tens of thousands of dollars on robocalls targeting socially liberal and openly gay Republicans running in 2014. But according to recently released documents, the organization is financially shaky. The group's 2013 tax filings show that, between its political and education arms, the nonprofit is nearly $1 million in debt, with donations down from the year before. And in its politically active nonprofit, just one donor accounted for more than half of all the organization's contributions—a whopping $2.2 million gift.

These aren't necessarily signs that the organization is doomed for failure, as HRC touted when the filings were made public last month. NOM President Brian Brown told National Journal that it isn't fair to think there's something wrong his organization for getting major donors. In a nonelection year, a politically active nonprofit like his understandably raises less money, he said, and they know they have gifts coming in that will make up for it in subsequent years.

"To have debt at the end of the year signifies that we've spent the money that we have in the fight," he said. "We are not in this fight to accrue some large bank account. We're in it because our donors trust us to spend the money on the fight. So what would be normal for us is to have a few hundred grand in debt."

"We spend a lot of money, and then we recoup it in the next year," he added. "Things even out."

Despite Brown's assurances that NOM is doing fine, Jeremy Koulish, a researcher for the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, told National Journal that these are red flags for the organization—and its goal of keeping marriage defined as between one man and one woman.

"It's a risky business model," he said. "That would not be recommended. If they can guarantee they have some funding source coming in, that's good for them. But if I was looking at their balance sheet not knowing what they do, I would say this is a troubled organization."

Looking forward to 2015, Olson is confident that the momentum for gay-marriage legalization will only continue. Should the Supreme Court take up one of the pending same-sex marriage cases in Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, or Tennessee, he said, "that could change the environment dramatically."

Though he doesn't like to speculate about what the high court will do—"the justices have a way of surprising us"—Olson said he does think it will hear one of those cases, and deliver another June decision in favor of gay marriage.

"The time has come," he said. "There's no turning back, and it is an issue that is finally time to just accept the reality."