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Originally published November 8, 2012 at 9:45 PM | Page modified November 9, 2012 at 8:36 AM

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More states in sights of gay-marriage backers

With victories in four states this week, supporters of same-sex marriage are now looking to other states where the political climate may be ripe for legalizing gay marriage. Opponents say they are prepared to battle them.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Buoyed by unprecedented victories at the ballot box, an energized gay-rights movement is looking ahead — building a state-by-state strategy for winning marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples across the country.

With Washington now firmly in the win column, advocates are turning their attention to key states where they see their best chances not just for getting same-sex marriage approved but also rolling back more than 30 state constitutional bans that prohibit such unions.

And their opponents, while acknowledging defeat this week, say they are prepared to fight them at every turn.

This week's election wins in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington suggest that in addition to working through legislatures and the courts, gay-marriage supporters for the first time can also look to the electorate.

More immediately, they are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is to decide Nov. 20 whether to take up a series of cases, including two that challenge the federal government's denial of benefits to married gay couples.

"We know the hard work is ahead, but I'd much rather be us than them — our opponents," Fred Sainz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights organization, said of this week's victories.

"So while we celebrate today, we rededicate ourselves to hard work tomorrow. We do not view this as a moment to slow down, but an opportunity to double down."

With Washington's Referendum 74 ahead 52 percent to 48 percent, Preserve Marriage Washington, the campaign that had worked to defeat it, conceded Thursday.

In a statement, campaign officials said that while they are disappointed, they are not defeated.

"We are fighting for a cause that is true, and beautiful, and right — the sacred institution of marriage," Joseph Backholm, the organization's campaign chairman said in a statement.

"It's a cause worth fighting for, and we will continue to educate citizens and policymakers on the timeless truth that real marriage is the union of one man and one woman."

Approval of the ballot measure makes Washington the third state this week to back gay marriage and one of nine, along with the District of Columbia, where gays can legally wed.

In this state, same-sex couples may begin applying for licenses as early as Dec. 6 — ahead of both Maine and Maryland, the two other states where voters Tuesday approved gay marriage. Voters in Minnesota rejected a constitutional ban of gay marriage.

Looking ahead, advocates have set their sights on states like Rhode Island, Illinois, Hawaii and Minnesota, where they believe they have sufficient support to get same-sex-marriage legislation passed.

Their opponents, unaccustomed to losing at the ballot box as they did this week, say they are not backing off.

"If there was a nationwide vote (Tuesday) night, we would have gotten 57 percent of the vote," said Frank Schubert, political director of the National Organization for Marriage, which ran the campaigns in all four states.

"Our opponents won some very liberal Democrat states; they took advantage of resources available to them and outspent us. It does not portend any big change. But it does show how highly contentious this issue is."

As his opponents are doing, Schubert said his side is also looking at where the battle goes next.

"There's no doubt, there'll be legislative efforts right away when these new legislatures are sworn in," he said. And while he said he's not yet studied the makeup of those legislatures, "I expect wherever there's a Democratic majority and governor, the other side will attempt to do something."

In the four years since California voters approved Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in that state's constitution, the same-sex-marriage movement has seen significant gains — including the repeal of the "don't ask don't tell" policy that prevented gay people from serving openly in the military.

Additionally, the Obama administration is not defending the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Under DOMA, states are not required to recognize gay marriages from states that allow them. Same-sex couples also are denied federal benefits such as joint tax filing and sponsoring a foreign spouse for immigration purposes.

Two federal appeals courts have declared unconstitutional that part of the law that denies federal marriage benefits to gay married couples.

On Nov. 20, the Supreme Court will decide whether to hear any of the DOMA cases, as well as a challenge to California's Prop. 8. In February, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that found Prop. 8 unconstitutional.

Experts say that while the Prop. 8 case could be precedent-setting if the high court takes it up, any ruling might be too narrowly tailored to California to directly affect other states.

Likewise, a ruling on DOMA would likely apply only to people in states where same-sex marriage is permitted.

Peter Nicolas, a law professor at the University of Washington, said both the Prop. 8 and DOMA cases were "litigated in a way that allows the Supreme Court to address a narrow issue without automatically deciding the right of gays to marry nationwide."

The gay-marriage movement has been cautious about bringing before the Supreme Court the broader question about the right of gays to marry, concerned about the profound impact of an unfavorable ruling.

"That is such a big step ... that would have sweeping impact right away," Nicolas said. "The risk is that the court might be reluctant to step out that far ahead of public opinion."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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