As same-sex marriage debates mount in six states, voters will likely decide whether or not to redefine marriage in their states through November referendums – and pro-family groups couldn't be happier about it.
New Jersey, Washington and Maryland legislators are pushing through bills that would legalize same-sex marriage. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has called for a referendum and said he would veto a same-sex marriage bill if it passes through the Senate and Assembly.
Washington is poised to pass its same-sex marriage bill, while Maryland's Democratic governor is working with Republican lawmakers to garner support for gay marriage.
Pro-family groups in all three states have supported calls for a referendum and have vowed to force them.
Gay rights groups in Maine announced they had enough signatures to force a referendum. North Carolina and Minnesota voters meanwhile will be asked to decide whether their state's constitution should be amended to define marriage as union between one man and one woman.
Legislators who support same-sex marriage bills in these states say lawmakers need to decide on such controversial issues otherwise change will never happen. The civil rights movement, many gay rights supporters say, would not have been as effective if lawmakers weren't willing to change existing discriminatory laws and measures were left to the voting public.
Indeed, referendums that have sought to define marriage as one man and one woman have been approved by voters 31 out of 31 times.
However, gay rights supporters point to recent polls that show the gap is closing across the country between those who believe same-sex couples should marry and those who oppose it.
A May 2011 Gallup poll found 53 percent of Americans believe same-sex marriage "should be recognized by the law as valid." A Pew Research poll conducted simultaneously found 45 percent of Americans are in favor of letting "gays and lesbians marry legally," while 46 are opposed.
But such numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, say same-sex marriage opponents.
Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine (CCL), says voters are more likely to vote against same-sex marriage when given the privacy of a voting booth as opposed to a public polling area.
"I think what happens, and I know this sounds cliché, the most important poll is the vote and this has occurred 31 times across the country and all 31 times, people across the U.S. believe in natural marriage," Conley told The Christian Post. "I think a lot of times, when [pollsters] go up and talk to them or come to their house and ask if they believe in equality, they may be more intimidated than when they get behind the curtain of a voting booth."
Len Deo, president of the pro-family New Jersey Family Policy Council, said a recent Quinnipiac University poll that found a majority of New Jersey residents in favor of a same-sex marriage bill was misleading because of the terminology the poll employed.
"What [voters] said is they supported marriage equality, the question that they didn't ask the people is 'did you know same-sex marriage gets all the rights and benefits of [traditional] marriage?' " Deo told CP. "I think the potential is there for marriage to be protected in our state."
Deo said he would support a referendum provided the wording was objective.
Gov. Christie, however, told a town hall meeting last week "The polls that I've seen show that if this [New Jersey's same-sex marriage bill] goes to the ballot, I lose." Critics claim Christie is once again deflected the hotly contested issue because he does not want to have to veto a divisive bill as he gains a greater national profile.
"If a majority of people want it, prove it," Christie said. "Let them vote on it. They'll get in the privacy of the voting booth and make their choice."
The National Organization for Marriage, meanwhile, has pledged to collect enough signatures in any state whose legislature votes in favor of a same-sex marriage bill. The group also vowed to fund the campaigns of challengers to Republican Senators in Washington who voted in favor of same-sex marriage.
By appealing to certain communities – particularly Christian communities – N.O.M. and other pro-family groups will try to force the issue onto the ballot and, equally important, get similar-minded residents into the voting booth.
In order to do so, N.O.M. has spent millions on ad campaigns, canvassing efforts and lobbying in contentious states, including over $2 million in Maine to fight a similar effort only two years ago.
This year, Maine gay rights groups are working from the outside in, as a coalition for same-sex marriage announced last month that it had enough signatures to get gay marriage onto the ballot.
However the measure gets to ballot is ostensibly inconsequential. No same-sex marriage referendum has ever passed, while many referendums defining marriage as one man and one woman have passed. And measures to repeal same-sex marriage bills and additions to civil union benefits, such as California's Proposition 8 and a 2009 Maine bill (among others) have been successful.
Gay rights groups say they believe polls suggest it's only a matter of time before voters approve of same-sex marriage bills. Opponents aren't quite convinced. Only time will tell.