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Marriage equality

In the wake of New York’s historic law allowing same-sex marriage, Rhode Island took steps of its own to address the issue. But its approach — a weak-tea civil-unions bill — shows just how far we’ve come.

It was just 11 years ago, on April 26, 2000, that Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont signed the nation’s first civil-unions bill — ostensibly giving same-sex partners the same rights as marriage without actually calling it marriage. Because of resultant death threats, Dean had to wear a bulletproof vest at the time. In 2003, as his star rose in his presidential bid, this civil-union bill was used by his foes — in both parties — to paint him as an extremist liberal radical. 

Today, just a decade later, a civil-union bill in equally liberal Rhode Island is considered to be a loss for the cause of equality. Gov. Lincoln Chafee reluctantly signed the bill Saturday, saying it “brings tangible rights and benefits to thousands of Rhode Islanders. It also provides a foundation from which we will continue to fight for full marriage equality.” Chief among Chafee’s complaints? The bill allows hospitals and cemeteries with religious affiliations to discriminate against same-sex partners, because nothing says “Jesus” more than harassing loving couples beyond the grave. As Chafee said, “This extraordinary exemption eviscerates the important rights that enacting a civil-union law was meant to guarantee for same-sex couples in the first place.”

It’s only a matter of time before Rhode Island has full marriage equality. Public opinion is moving at warp speed on the issue. In 1996, Gallup polling found that 68 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while just 27 percent approved. Now, just 15 years later, 53 percent approve, while a 45 percent minority is opposed — a mind-boggling 49-point swing in less than a generation. And that’s almost an inverse reversal from last year, when 44 percent approved and 53 percent opposed. There isn’t a poll today that doesn’t confirm accelerated acceptance for gay marriage. 

This was all inevitable. Opposition to same-sex marriage is heaviest among the oldest Americans, and they are quickly being replaced by the millennial generation — by far the most tolerant and open-minded. A model last year by statistician Nate Silver found support for gay marriage increasing by one to two points per year, and that was before this past year’s accelerated acceptance. Is it any wonder that the forces of inequality and intolerance are trying to enshrine their hate into as many state constitutions as possible? 

Currently, 29 states have gay-marriage bans in their constitutions, and another 12 ban it by statute. Reactionaries are pushing anti-equality constitutional amendments in Minnesota and North Carolina this cycle even though those two already ban gay marriage by statute — last-gasp efforts to codify their hate because the forces of equality are finally on the offensive. 

New York was a major victory. Next up is Maine, where activists are already collecting signatures for a 2012 ballot initiative to legalize same-sex marriage. Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s largest gay-rights group, is already running ads laying the foundation for an initiative. In California, at least one major gay-rights group is in the process of evaluating conditions for its own initiative.

While anti-equality groups notched impressive ballot-box victories over the past decade, they’ve lost the generational and public opinion battles. Their time has passed. Now comes the hard work of purging law books and state constitutions of their discriminatory hate. 

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos.