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Originally published April 17, 2009 at 2:27 PM | Page modified April 20, 2009 at 9:27 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

The state-by-state evolution of gay marriage

Domestic law is traditionally left to the states, and that's where it should stay, writes syndicated columnist Froma Harrop. For supporters of gay marriage, a series of peaceful advances at the state level paves a smoother path than a titanic battle on the national stage.

Syndicated columnist

This has been a month of forward leaps in the campaign for gay-marriage — or so it is said. The Iowa Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex marriage, providing a toehold in the heartland. And the Vermont Legislature legalized gay marriage, marking the first time that elected lawmakers, rather than state judges, initiated such change.

Significant developments both, but they are part of an evolution, not a revolution. The story really started 20 years ago, when Denmark offered the first civil unions. They give same-sex couples rights and benefits similar to those in a heterosexual marriage.

In 2000, Vermont initiated civil unions in the United States. Three years later, Massachusetts sanctioned gay marriage, as did Connecticut last October. So the events in Iowa and Vermont were bricks laid upon an already tested foundation.

There's much to be said for letting states settle the question of gay marriage, one step and one jurisdiction at a time. This pragmatic approach does not always sit well with gay-rights activists. They consider marriage a basic human right that should not be honored in one place and abridged in another.

But the alternative — a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming the right to gay marriage — would only slow things down. It could turn into another Roe v. Wade, the controversial 1973 ruling that guaranteed a right to abortion and has divided the country ever since. Even pro-choice legal experts find Roe problematic.

And one can't assume that the court would rule in favor of gay marriage. It might not. Further, turning the issue into a national controversy could revive the effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.

In any case, domestic law (which includes marriage) is traditionally left to the states, and that's where it should stay. For supporters of gay marriage, a series of peaceful advances at the state level paves a smoother path than a titanic battle on the national stage.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called states "the laboratories of democracy." Being closer to the people and more attuned to the local culture, states are better equipped than the federal government to introduce new social policies. Innovations are usually first tried in the places most receptive to them.

It helps to remember that even in liberal Massachusetts, people were of two minds about gay marriage. In a poll done shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court threw out the ban on same-sex marriages, over half those residents surveyed said they wanted a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to between one man and one woman. But a poll taken three years later found that 56 percent of the Massachusetts respondents would oppose such an amendment.

What happened in Massachusetts? Gay marriage had become legal, and the sky hadn't fallen in. People got used to the idea.

A survey last October of Iowans found that more than 62 percent of those surveyed opposed same-sex marriage. It will be interesting to follow Iowa opinion in the likely event that gay marriage goes into effect.

Of course, the road to same-sex marriage is not straight. There have been a number of hairpin turns back. Last November, voters adopted state constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex marriage in Arizona and Florida and, narrowly, in California.

The wind is clearly at the advocates' back. Younger Americans are especially accepting of homosexuality. As they replace their elders, and gay marriage comes to seem routine, the bans will fall one by one.

Activists should note: An idea whose time has not fully come often arrives faster when it takes the slow route through the states.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

2009, The Providence Journal Co.

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