UAlbany Researchers Find Gay Marriage Controversy Differs from Discrimination Debates of Past

Religion Steps Aside as Major Indicator

Contact: Karl Luntta (518) 437-4981, cell (518) 265-4114, pager (518) 341-0316

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 4, 2002) -- Religion plays a less significant role than previously thought in shaping the political debate over same sex marriage in the United States, according to a recent study by researchers at the University at Albany.

The study, conducted by political science student Shauna F. Fisher and Professor Scott Barclay, concludes that while traditionally conservative religious groups played significant roles in the discussion over sexual orientation discrimination laws in the 1970s, their more recent roles in prohibiting legalized unions of same sex couples in various states were less influential than such secular factors as personal beliefs about marriage and the political and demographic climate.

Fisher and Barclay report in "The States and the Differing Impetus for Divergent Paths on Gay and Lesbian Rights 1990-2001," which examines initiatives behind same sex marriage laws in the 50 states, that the decision of the Vermont state legislature to consider same sex marriage in early 2000 was neither original nor unusual for the period. Between 1990 and 2001, state courts in Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont introduced the possibility of sanctioning same sex marriage, and Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, Hawaii and Rhode Island had bills before the legislature in support of same sex marriage. Simultaneously, however, six states held referendums and 35 states introduced laws precluding same sex marriage or their recognition. Though many states finally passed laws prohibiting same sex marriage, these laws seem to have been influenced by personal notions of marriage rather than the often religiously influenced position many states initially took on sexual orientation issues a generation earlier.

The researchers also discovered, through changes in the format of the national census in 2000 which for the first time documented households with cohabiting same sex couples, that a significant link existed between the intensity of a state’s debate on same sex marriage and the size of its declared gay population – a sign that an overt gay presence in a state adds complexity to the discussion. However, while a greater presence of lesbian, gay and bisexual state residents increases the controversy associated with introducing anti-same sex marriage measures, it also appears that even local governments within states that have enacted domestic partnership coverage and anti-discrimination laws have been less influenced by a considerable gay presence into taking positive action on same sex marriage.

"Overall," write Fisher and Barclay, "the battle over same sex marriage is clearly of a different political nature than earlier sexual orientation political battles. At most, we have just begun to map the territory on which this battle occurs within the states."

As part of her research, Fisher, who is an honors undergraduate student, developed an expansive 50 state database of various laws, demographic indicators, economic indices and political variables to analyze the factors that shape the introduction of state laws that recognize same sex relationships.

Fisher and Barclay co-presented the paper at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Boston in late August, and plan to present similar research results to the Midwest Political Science Association meeting in Chicago in April 2003.


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