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Some unexpected electoral results

30 November 2012

Attitudes towards same-sex marriage are changing, says Bill Countryman

MOST attention, in our recent national elections, focused on the presidential race and the control of Congress - naturally enough, since they shape the government's direction for the next few years. Another significant outcome, however, had to do with a social issue, the opening up of marriage to same-sex couples.

Marriage, in the United States, is governed primarily by the states, with the federal government intervening only exceptionally. In the late 19th century, Congress pressed the Mormon Church to give up polygamy before allowing Utah to become a state. In 1967, the Supreme Court belatedly declared that a Virginia law prohibiting marriage between people of different races was an unconstitutional violation of equal rights.

In 1996, Congress passed a law forbidding federal recognition of gay or lesbian marriages, even in those states where they are legal, and the Supreme Court will soon have to decide whether the constitution permits this.

The main arena of conflict and decision, then, continues to be the individual states, eight of which (plus the District of Columbia) now acknowledge same-sex marriages. Up until now, this kind of change occurred either because a state court had determined that the state's constitution did not allow limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples, or because the state legislature voted for the change. Whenever the issue was submitted directly to the larger public as a ballot proposition, a majority voted to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.

This November, however, voters in three states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington) decided to make same-sex marriage legal. In a fourth state, Minnesota, they rejected a ballot proposition that would have written a ban on same-sex marriage into the state's constitution. Even though public opinion was already evolving in this direction, the sudden shift is surprising. What makes it still more remarkable is that the voters of Maine reversed the contrary decision they had made only three years before.

Opponents of same-sex marriage have minimised the importance of these events, asserting that the states involved represent only the liberal margins of the country. Since Maine is, in fact, historically conservative and Republican, this sounds like whistling in the dark. Even though no one expects to see Alabama or Mississippi change their minds on the subject any time soon, other states could well do so.

What has made the difference? More effective campaigning by proponents of same-sex marriage is one part of it. In Maine, for example, they emphasised the desire of parents and grandparents to have this right extended to members of their families. But the opponents of same-sex marriage may have contributed unintentionally to their own defeat. For several decades, they have proclaimed that same-sex marriage would mean the end of civilisation as we know it. In fact, little has changed, except that more and more people know married gay couples, who turn out not to be remarkably different from their heterosexual counterparts.

The most effective counter-argument to apocalyptic scenarios turns out to be the sheer, homely familiarity of married life.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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