BOSTON–When four unelected men and women on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that disqualifying same-sex couples from marriage violated the state constitution, it was widely understood to have implications beyond the Bay State. Faced with a strategy of legalizing gay marriage by judicial fiat through successive court victories, some social conservatives went so far as to consider Massachusetts “marriage’s last stand.” This makes gathering signs that the commonwealth’s gay-marriage proponents could achieve the same result democratically all the more consequential.
Gay marriage has been popular with activist judges but not with voters even in liberal states. When the Hawaii state supreme court appeared likely to rule in favor of granting marital status to same-sex unions, voters responded by passing a constitutional amendment empowering the state legislature to affirm traditional marriage with 69 percent of the vote. California approved Proposition 22, the Defense of Marriage Act, with 61 percent of the vote. Vermont lacked the ballot initiative as recourse against a state supreme-court ruling mandating either full gay marriage or a reasonable facsimile thereof, but angry voters punished several legislators who backed civil unions and gave Republicans control of the state House of Representatives. Yet statewide polls in Massachusetts conducted after the SJC acted show the Goodridge vs. Massachusetts decision to be remarkably in synch with public opinion.
According to a Boston Globe/WBZ TV poll, 50 percent of Massachusetts residents supported gay marriage compared to 38 percent who were opposed. Rather than indicating any kind of backlash, opposition to gay marriage was actually down six points from an earlier poll in April. These results are not limited to the reliably liberal Globe’s polling data–a Boston Herald poll released the same day found 49 percent of Massachusetts residents in favor of gay marriage while 38 percent were opposed.
Worse still for marriage advocates, the Boston Globe and WBZ TV found that 53 percent opposed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman while only 36 percent were in favor. Barring preemption by a federal marriage amendment, the passage of such an amendment at the state level is necessary to overturn Goodridge. This amendment already faces enormous hurdles in the legislature and in that it wouldn’t be able to qualify for the ballot for final popular approval until 2006, likely after gay marriage has been in effect for a year and a half. Congressman Barney Frank confidently predicts that by that time the voters will notice that they sky hasn’t fallen and will reject any such amendment. Of course, less than two years would hardly be enough time to evaluate the results of a social experiment like gay marriage. But he is probably right that voters would be more reluctant to take existing benefits away from people as opposed to voting against granting them new ones; this time lag is a huge advantage to supporters of gay marriage.
Nor does the Globe poll bode well for efforts by Gov. Mitt Romney and other elected leaders to offer something less than full gay marriage. Fifty-three percent want the laws only adjusted insofar as is necessary to conform to Goodridge, compared to 23 percent who want the state to offer gay couples certain rights and benefits without calling it marriage (i.e., Vermont-style civil unions) and 16 percent who want the state’s elected officials to defy the ruling entirely.
As recently as the 2002 election cycle, it was widely assumed that if a constitutional amendment upholding the traditional definition of marriage made it to the ballot, Massachusetts voters would pass it. That’s why gay-marriage advocates worked so hard to keep it from ever getting there in the first place. What has happened to cause public opinion Massachusetts to diverge so sharply from the national polling numbers?
Most media outlets have covered the gay-marriage debate through the lens of a civil-rights struggle. This has kept opponents from being portrayed in the most favorable light.
An Associated Press report carried on the local news website Boston.com warned that the governor’s opposition to gay marriage “may serve Romney well in his rumored aspirations for national office, some political observers say it could strand him historically on the losing side of a swiftly evolving civil rights battle.” A Democratic consultant is quoted saying, ”When you block that doorway, you’re locked in history,” as if Romney is analogous to George Wallace. No one quoted in the story fully agrees with the substance of Romney’s position other than his own communications director; the closet is former GOP congressman Mickey Edwards’s assurance that Romney is taking “really a pro-gay position” by compromising on civil unions. A Globe story that appeared the same day the Goodridge ruling came down focused on Massachusetts Family Institute President Ronald Crews being a “transplant” from Georgia.
The state’s gay-marriage opponents have also brought many problems on themselves. Many of them have simply gotten bogged down in a debate with activists over homosexuality rather than focusing on the primary issue of marriage itself. A major regional force for moral conservatism has also been weakened; the Catholic Church’s credibility with many voters on these issues has been hurt by the Boston archdiocese’s scandals.
It is in places like Massachusetts where the marriage debate will be won or lost. But if minds aren’t changed, the loss won’t be at the courthouse. It will be at the polling place.
–W. James Antle III is a Boston-based freelance writer and senior editor for Enter Stage Right.