Foes and supporters of same-sex marriage are gearing up for five costly and bruising statewide showdowns in the coming months on an issue that evenly divides Americans.
It's an election year subplot sure to stir up heated emotions — even beyond the confines of North Carolina, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine and Washington state. National advocacy groups will be deeply engaged, and advertising is likely to surface from each side that outrages the other.
"It's crunch time," said Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, the paramount fundraiser for opponents of gay marriage. "We view it as a massive opportunity for a national referendum."
Brown predicts same-sex marriage will be rebuffed in all five states, while gay-marriage supporters hope they can score at least a few victories and break a long losing streak. Since 1998, 31 states have had ballot measures related to same-sex marriage, and in every state the opponents ended up prevailing.
However, the most recent vote was in 2009. Gay-rights activists think public opinion is moving inexorably in their direction, citing both national polls and policy developments such as repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
A look at the states likely to vote on marriage this year:
• In North Carolina on its May 8 primary day and in Minnesota on Election Day in November, voters will weigh in on constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by Republican-controlled legislatures that would ban gay marriage. Neither state allows same-sex marriage now, but supporters say the amendments — similar to those approved in 29 other states — would prevent courts from empowering same-sex couples to wed in the future.
• In Maine, gay-marriage supporters have placed a bill on the Nov. 6 ballot to legalize same-sex marriage. The legislature approved a similar bill in 2009 but it was overturned by 53 percent of the voters in a referendum that fall.
• In Maryland and Washington, foes of same-sex marriage are expected to gather enough signatures in the coming weeks to place measures on the Nov. 6 ballot that would overturn recently passed same-sex marriage laws.