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Maryland gay marriage bill signed into law

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

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Two mothers of openly gay sons greet Gov. O'Malley. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the state's gay marriage bill into law Thursday evening, capping off a month of big state-level wins for the gay rights movement around the country.

"We're in a much more pro-active place," Michael Cole-Schwartz of the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest LGBT advocacy and lobbying outfit, tells Yahoo News. "We've been able to achieve marriage equality in more places, and at the same time we've seen the public support go up and up."

In February, legislators in Maryland, Washington and New Jersey voted to allow gay couples to marry, though Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill. The wins follow June's New York same-sex marriage law, the first such bill to pass a Republican-controlled chamber.

The win in New York was partly due to a different gay marriage strategy: identifying vulnerable lawmakers who are anti-gay marriage and then supporting their opponents in small-fry state races. Denver-area philanthropist Tim Gill used the Gill Action Fund to pump nearly $800,000 into a group called "Fight Back New York" to defeat four lawmakers who voted against gay marriage in 2009 and were shown to be the most vulnerable in polling. It worked. In October, the four Republican New York senators who broke with their party to vote for gay marriage in June were rewarded with a $1 million fundraiser, attended by Gill and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But, gay marriage opponents have a plan to counter these victories, which may put the movement back on the defensive. Efforts are already underway to reverse the same-sex marriage laws in Maryland and Washington through a November ballot referendum. In Minnesota and North Carolina, the Human Rights Campaign and other groups are busy fending off gay marriage ballot bans, set for November and May, respectively.

Republican strategists pushed the idea of putting gay marriage on state ballots in 2004 and 2006, to stoke voter enthusiasm among the party's base. So far, voters in all 31 states have rejected gay marriage when it was put up to a vote. Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Washington and Iowa--which have all legalized gay marriage--did so through the legislature or the courts.

"These are not real victories," anti-gay marriage National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown says. "In fact, these are going to lead to even more defeats for same-sex marriage [through ballot initiatives]." But in both Maryland and Washington, recent polls show about half of voters support same-sex marriage, suggesting a ballot vote could be very close. Gradually rising support for gay marriage means ballot initiatives might no longer be the secret weapon of the anti-gay marriage camp.

Same-sex marriage supporters in Maine are willing to test out that theory. They're trying to get same-sex marriage on the November ballot, becoming the first pro-gay marriage group to seek a ballot initiative on the issue. "The track record has not been good for the question," says Dave Farmer, communications coordinator at the Dirigo Family Political Action Committee, which is funding the Maine ballot campaign. "I believe the number is 0 in 31." Farmer says the group's polling shows that about 53 percent of voters would vote for the ballot measure to let same-sex couples marry. In 2009, Maine voters vetoed the legislature's gay marriage bill, dealing a crushing blow to gay rights advocates in the state.

In Maine, gay marriage advocates also don't have much to lose. Gay marriage is already not allowed in Maine, and both houses of the legislature flipped to majority Republican in 2010, when the state also voted in a Republican governor who opposes same-sex marriage.

Gay rights supporters have slammed ballot initiatives in the past as placing a basic right up to popular vote. But Farmer says it's not the means that matter. "The bottom line is same-sex couples want to get married for the same reasons other couples do. Whether the means of making that possible are through a legislative, representative process or through a direct initiative, the goal is the same."

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