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How Soon Will All of New England Legalize Gay Marriage?

By L. K. Regan

Wednesday was a big day for gay marriage in a year that has completely transformed the marital landscape—literally. Suddenly, New England stands poised to be an entire region of legal same-sex marriages. On Wednesday afternoon, Maine's governor, John Baldacci, signed legislation making Maine the fifth state with legal gay marriages, and the second to arrive there by legislative (as opposed to judicial) action. Meanwhile, New Hampshire's legislature passed a gay marriage bill in a close vote, with a signature awaiting a gubernatorial decision. As we congratulate the great state of Maine on its new law we also have to ask: when will all of New England become a bastion of same-sex marriages? Here's the state of affairs, and what to expect.

The Path to Maine
Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts all have legal same-sex unions. Massachusetts and Connecticut were forced to rewrite their laws in the face of judicial action that declared existing marriage laws in violation of the equal protection clauses of the states' constitutions. Though the outcome of those verdicts was a flood of joyful weddings, the complaint of anti-gay-marriage activists focused on the supposedly "undemocratic" method by which those laws came into being.

Enter Vermont, whose legislature voluntarily introduced and passed a revision of state marriage laws to include same-sex couples. This was specifically a revocation of the state's civil unions legislation, which was the oldest in the nation. But the path to legality was a difficult one. Vermont's governor, Jim Douglas, delivered on a threat to veto the bill, and the vote in the state House was tight. Very tight. In fact, at the last minute, a final member voted his conscience and the veto was overridden by the absolute barest margin.

Maine: A Governor's Conscience
And yet, with each additional state, the consensus in New England seems to be shifting. In fact, Maine's path to gay marriage may offer a glimpse of events to come. Here, the House passed gay marriage legislation with a solid 89 to 57 vote, and the Senate followed suit with a 21 to 13 vote (though these votes would not have been sufficient to overturn a gubernatorial veto). Governor Baldacci had in the past opposed same-sex marriages. But his spokesman told the press that the governor would not make a decision until the bill reached his desk, and that he would do as his conscience indicated—a conscience that could perhaps be heard particularly clearly in the face of the term limits preventing the governor from seeking re-election. On Wednesday afternoon, Baldacci became the first governor to sign into law a gay marriage bill passed without court order.

In a statement from his office at the signing, Governor Balducci revealed the fault lines in the developing marriage debate in New England: the window dressing of civil unions is no longer convincing. "In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions," Baldacci said. "I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage."

New Hampshire: A Governor's Dilemma
In New Hampshire, Governor John Lynch faces the same choice as Baldacci in Maine, but under somewhat different circumstances. On Wednesday, the New Hampshire legislature passed a gay marriage bill by a vote of 178 to 167, a margin far too small to sustain an override of a veto. The legislation passed the state's Senate last week. Once the bill reaches the governor's desk, he will have five days to decide whether to sign it or veto it. If he elects to do neither, the bill will pass automatically into law.

What Governor Lynch, a Democrat, will choose to do is a matter of rampant speculation. He is eligible for re-election, but in a rapidly changing political environment, where the impact of a choice on the gay marriage issue in New England is unclear. He is on record as opposing same-sex marriages on the grounds that New Hampshire's existing civil unions are adequate—though in repeating this argument to the press last week, he notably did not reiterate prior remarks that marriage should be between a man and a woman. And, as the example of Maine demonstrates, civil unions are increasingly inadequate in the midst of a region that is rapidly replacing them with marriages.

Rhode Island: The Final Frontier
In Rhode Island, gay marriages seem to be temporarily stalled. A bill to legalize same-sex unions was introduced in the legislature earlier this year, but even its supporters have little faith in its future. That's because Republican Governor Donald Carcieri has made it clear that he is committed to a limited definition of marriage. In fact, in April, following the introduction of the bill, Carcieri and his wife very publicly joined the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, which seeks to limit marriage to straight couples. In the absence of sufficient votes for a veto override, Rhode Island Democrats prefer to let the legislation stall rather than fail.

That does not mean that Rhode Island is idle on the gay marriage issue. Activists and pro-gay marriage legislators have sought, in the absence of a gay marriage law, to chip away at the underpinnings of opposition to such a law. So, though gay marriage is not legal in Rhode Island, the state's attorney general has repeatedly advised recognizing same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts and elsewhere. And, along with a gay marriage bill this spring, legislators introduced a separate bill to allow gay couples married in other states to divorce in Rhode Island. The fate of this bill is uncertain as well, but demonstrates a possible second strategy as the legislature waits for the results of the 2010 gubernatorial election.

As New England solidifies its new marriage laws, eyes turn to nearby states that appear poised to introduce and debate gay marriage legislation in the next year: New York and New Jersey. Though, as the example of Iowa indicates, it is wise to keep an eye on the country as a whole, beyond just New England. The next state to join may just be your own.