Voters in four states approved measures supporting gay marriage Tuesday in a dramatic break with a long line of ballot box defeats for marriage equality proposals.
In Maryland and Washington, voters turned aside ballot questions challenging legislation approving same-sex unions. Minnesota voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages. The Minnesota result, by itself, does not establish the right to same-sex marriages, but it is expected to pave the way to such legislation. And in Maine, where voters had rejected same-sex marriage legislation just three years, ago, a 53-47 percent majority reversed that outcome.
While same-sex marriage bans remain on the books in the majority of states, those contests mark the first time that voters have directly supported gay marriage. Previously, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute, voters had consistently opposed same-sex marriage questions. The outcomes follow a major shift in polling on the issue. The Gallup organization reported last year that for the first time, a majority of Americans were in favor of same-sex marriage.
Gay rights advocates hailed Tuesday's results in a breakthrough heralding more such victories in the future. But defenders of traditional marriage argued that they are an aberration that will not change a national legislative status quo that remains overwhelmingly against same-sex marriages.
"Our opponents and some in the media will attempt to portray the election results as a changing point in how Americans view gay marriage, but that is not the case,'' Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in a statement. "Americans remain strongly in favor of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The election results reflect the political and funding advantages our opponents enjoyed in these very liberal states.''
David B. Cruz, a professor of law at the University of Southern California, who has studied the gay marriage debate, argued that the collective result does indicate a sea change in attitudes on the controversial issue.
He said the results "do signal a shift in public understanding and approval of the issues in the quest for marriage equality. ... The fact that this is in line with what is emerging in national polls, in the past year for the first time, [it] does make sense to see this as a sort of transition point.''
In 1996, The Gallup Poll found that Americans opposed gay marriage by the overwhelming margin of 68 percent to 27 percent. But support for same-sex marriage has climbed since. By 2011, a majority -- 53 percent to 45 percent -- had for the first time moved in favor of gay marriage. This spring, around the time that President Barack Obama came out in favor of gay marriage, the margin in favor had slipped somewhat, from 50 percent to 48 percent.
Mr. Brown denounced Tuesday's results as a blue state phenomenon, and it is true, according to the Gallup findings, that views on the issue are strongly correlated with party identification. In the May survey, Democrats said gay marriage should be legal by a margin of 65 percent to 34 percent. Republicans, however, opposed the concept, 74 percent to 22 percent. Political independents were much closer to the Democratic position, favoring legalized gay marriage 57 percent to 40 percent.
Despite their church's teachings on the issue, Catholics favored same-sex marriage, 51 percent to 47 percent, but Protestants were opposed by a margin of 59 percent to 38 percent.
A separate study last year sponsored by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that while evangelical Christians remain strongly opposed to gay marriage, a majority of white mainline Protestants favored legal same-sex marriage. Surveys have also found clear distinctions by age, with younger Americans consistently more accepting of gay marriage.
The Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found some shift in favor of gay marriage among Pennsylvania voters this spring shortly after Mr. Obama's announcement of his support, although a clear plurality -- 48 percent to 39 percent -- remained in opposition.
Pennsylvania enacted legislation defining marriage in the state as a union between one man and one woman in 1996, the same year that the parallel federal Defense of Marriage Act was signed by President Bill Clinton. Legislation has also been proposed in Harrisburg to make the traditional definition part of the state Constitution. In all, 37 states have approved legislative or constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.
After Tuesday's results, nine states have recognized same-sex marriages, whether as a result of court decisions, legislation or referenda. With the tabulation of Tuesday's results barely complete, it's not clear if or when other states' voters will be asked to make decisions on the issue. But the new U.S. Supreme Court term has the opportunity to significantly reshape the marriage landscape.
In a 2008 ballot question, California voters banned gay marriage, but that ban has been struck down by a federal appeals court. Its decision has been appealed to the high court. If the justices were to decide not to hear that appeal, the California ban would be struck down and gay marriage would go forward in the Golden State.
Should the justices accept the California case, they would have an opportunity to make a broader decision with national implications on gay marriage. That potential is also presented in several other appeals of federal court decisions that have declared the defense of marriage legislation unconstitutional.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com, 412-263-1562.