In a special session, the Vermont Senate yesterday voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Later this week, a similar bill is scheduled for a vote in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Next month a legislative panel in Maine will hold a hearing on a bill to allow gay couples to marry, just as lawmakers did last month in Rhode Island.
Little more than five years after the Supreme Judicial Court legalized marriage for same-sex couples in Massachusetts, gay advocates say they're coming closer to their goal of extending gay marriage to all New England states by 2012.
"One of the advantages of New England is that we share geography and media markets, so folks in other states have seen marriage in Massachusetts for five years and can see the good," said Lee Swislow, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, who has called for New England to be a "marriage equality zone." "I think the efforts build on each other. What happens in one state inspires folks in other states, and hopefully it will inspire the rest of the country."
Last year, Connecticut joined Massachusetts to become the second state in the country to allow same-sex marriage. Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and California permit civil unions, but advocates for gay marriage say it does not afford the same rights as marriage. A court decision last year briefly allowed same-sex marriage in California, but a voter initiative in November banned it.
Even the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage concede that the tide may be turning in New England.
"There's no doubt that they're making progress in the legislatures," said Kris Mineau, president for the Massachusetts Family Institute in Woburn, which has long opposed same-sex marriage. "They have wisely targeted the New England states, because of their progressive stance on social issues. But we have not conceded defeat."
He said opponents of same-sex marriage have had a harder time making their case, because of what he called "the long-term impact of this radical social experiment."
"The cost of eroding marriage will manifest itself in future generations," he said.
That argument did not resonate yesterday in Vermont, where senators voted 26-4 in favor of same-sex marriage. The bill will be taken up later this week in the House, where lawmakers said it is expected to win a majority vote, though by a thinner margin.
"This was a tremendous victory for equal rights," said Senator John Campbell, majority leader of the Vermont Senate and chief sponsor of the bill. "Vermont will be the first state to enact this legislation without a court order. It was pretty clear that the facts dictated this. This is an equal rights issue."
It was not clear yesterday whether Vermont Governor Jim Douglas would try to prevent the legislation from becoming law. Douglas, a Republican, has said he opposes the bill. His staff would not say yesterday whether he would veto it.
"The governor does not make a practice of saying what he will do with a bill," said Dennise Casey, the governor's deputy chief of staff. "The governor has been clear that he does not support the bill. The governor believes we have achieved equality in our civil union law. He agrees that we should extend the same rights and privileges through civil unions."
In New Hampshire, lawmakers will vote on whether to approve same-sex marriages on Thursday.
Jim Splaine, a member of the New Hampshire House and chief sponsor of its bill, said the vote will be close in a chamber with a majority of Democrats, most of whom he said support the bill.
"It's going to be tough, but we stand a good chance," Splaine said. "I think most people have realized that we need full equality, not just civil unions."
New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, also opposes same-sex marriage. But, like Vermont's governor, he is not saying whether he would veto such a bill.
"He thinks the civil unions that he signed into law prevents discrimination and provides the same legal protections to all New Hampshire families to the extent that it's possible under federal law," said Colin Manning, a spokesman for Lynch.
In Maine, Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, said her group has found nine cosponsors of a same-sex marriage bill in the state's 35-member Senate and 55 cosponsors in its 151-member House. Next month, the bill will have its first legislative hearing.
"We hope the bill will pass this year," she said.
Maine's Democratic Governor John Baldacci has not taken a position on the bill.
Joy Leach, a spokeswoman for Baldacci, said the governor "remains open-minded and will follow the debate . . .. He has opposed gay marriage in the past, favoring civil unions, but he has not made a final decision on this legislation."
The challenge for gay rights advocates might be greater in Rhode Island, where lawmakers have repeatedly voted against same-sex marriage bills in recent years.
Kathy Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said her group has more support now, which she said was reflected at a hearing last month before the state Senate's Judiciary Committee.
She said the same-sex marriage bill now has five cosponsors in the 38-member Senate and 31 cosponsors in the 75-member House. But Republican Governor Donald L. Carcieri has said he would veto any such bill.
"We're getting closer," Kushnir said. "Our target is 2011, when we have a new governor."