President Obama's announcement of support for the freedom to marry, a decision rooted in the Golden Rule of "treating others the way you would want to be treated," is a historic milestone for the global freedom to marry movement. The President joins a growing number of Americans who have opened their hearts and changed their minds, moved by conversations about why marriage matters, the stories of couples doing the work of marriage in their own lives but disrespected by the law, and reflection on basic values of fairness and freedom.
Numerous other voices have spoken up in support of the freedom to marry in recent weeks, including former President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Joseph Biden, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Latino and African-American civil rights organizations, including the nation's oldest, the NAACP. Some of those voices are judges: As of yesterday, six federal courts, including one appellate court, had challenged the constitutionality of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that withholds from married gay couples the 1100+ federal protections and responsibilities accorded all other couples lawfully married in the states. (In America, marriage licenses are issued by the states, not the federal government, but the federal government then typically respects those lawful marriages -- but for the "gay exception" of DOMA).
Meanwhile, several court cases are challenging state-level marriage discrimination, including, most recently the federal appellate court that struck down California's infamous Proposition 8, which stripped same-sex couples in California of the freedom to marry. With the recent appellate decision not to rehear the decision against Prop 8, cases challenging both state and federal marriage discrimination are now poised to potentially reach the Supreme Court as early as the fall. It is now more urgent than ever that we make the same strong case in the court of public opinion as we are making in the courts of law.
Freedom to Marry's "Roadmap to Victory" national strategy has always called for synergistic progress on three tracks: growing the majority for marriage that creates the climate for elected officials and judges to do the right thing, ending federal marriage discrimination and winning more states. With the freedom to marry on the November ballot in four states, there are crucial, top-priority opportunities to make enormous gains and maximize our chances of winning in the Supreme Court.
In Minnesota we face a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at banning marriage for same-sex couples, while in Maine, we seek to affirmatively win the freedom to marry, after losing three years ago by only 30,000 votes out of over 500,000 cast. In Washington and Maryland, anti-gay forces are working to overturn freedom to marry laws passed earlier this year. These battles are incredibly important, not only to the thousands of loving, committed couples doing the work of marriage every day in those states, but also because they give us a chance to take away our opponents' last talking point -- the claim that as a minority, we cannot win a majority vote.
Today was the first day that same-sex couples were supposed to be able to marry in the state of Washington, but despite the freedom to marry law passed early this year by Washington's legislature and signed by the governor, anti-gay groups have collected signatures to force a referendum on the law, delaying its enactment until it is approved by the voters in November.
A poll recently released by Strategies 360, a Washington state consulting firm, reported that 54 percent of voters think it should be legal for same-sex couples to get married, the same solid majority we see in last week's national poll by CNN. An overwhelming majority of Democrats support the freedom to marry (70 percent), as does a super-majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 (73 percent). Those who "strongly" support the freedom to marry (39 percent) outnumber those who "strongly" oppose (34 percent). A March NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that support among Republicans -- traditionally the most hostile -- had grown by 41 percent, while political independents support the freedom to marry by numbers nearly approximating the Democrats. These numbers are strong, but victory is not a lock.
Winning marriage at the ballot in even one state will take away the last desperate talking point our opponents use to disparage the gains we are making across the country. In March, Freedom to Marry launched the Win More States Fund to raise and strategically spend $3 million into targeted campaigns where and when they are most needed, supporting grassroots organizing, television and radio spots, new media programs and public education. We are taking a lead role alongside local families and leaders, adding talent and resources on the frontlines to do the critical work necessary to win.
Meanwhile, we continue to make the case for marriage in all 50 states, in Congress and around kitchen tables. Freedom to Marry this year launched Freedom to Serve, Freedom to Marry, working together with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) to tell the stories of service members who, though they can serve openly, cannot serve equally. Because of DOMA, lesbian and gay service members who are now able to marry are still denied the federal protections and responsibilities triggered by marriage. In the military, these include medical insurance and survivor benefits to simply being able to enter military bases or live in military housing like any other military family.
As the President's description of how he changed his mind shows, we have the winning formula and we've got momentum... but victory will come only if we seize the moment. Change was never impossible, nor it is inevitable. It is up to all of us to do the work of persuasion and political organizing. There is no marriage without engagement.