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In the Phoenix: put gay marriage on the ballot?

I've got a cover story in this week's Phoenix asking whether Rhode Island's gay marriage advocates should consider putting the question on the ballot.

Advocates have resisted the idea to date, and for good reason. In 32 states, voters have rejected same-sex nuptials at the polls. And the campaigns can get nasty, taking a personal toll on gay and lesbian families.

But this fall, as voters in four states - Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington state - take up the question, advocates sense a chance to break the streak. Indeed, in three of those states, they have substantial leads in public opinion surveys (the electorate is split down the middle in Minnesota).

If advocates win in a couple of states, Ocean State activists may have to consider the possibility of a ballot measure here - especially with the state senate presenting a daunting obstacle to legislative victory, at least at the moment.

In the course of my reporting, I spoke with Chris Plante, a Rhode Islander who has led the National Organization for Marriage's anti-gay marriage campaign in the Ocean State. NOM has loaned him, this fall, to Preserve Marriage Washington, the leading anti-same-sex nuptials group in that state. But he assures me he'll be back home after the election.

I wasn't able to squeeze Plante into the piece. But he said some interesting things.

First, he said that keeping up the opposition's undefeated streak is probably most important as part of the national narrative. With gay marriage likely headed to the Supreme Court, supporters of traditional marriage hope that a 36-0 record could make for a powerful check on court action - or, at least, a good talking point in the public relations battle over the court's decision.

If a loss or two would hurt on the national level, Plante acknowleged, it would also eliminate a potent talking point he might use when he returns to Rhode Island to engage in next year's expected legislative battle; he would no longer be able to say that voters always reject same-sex nuptials when they get the chance.

But he suggested a record of, say, 34-2 would still be a pretty compelling one to throw around the General Assembly. "Do I think losing one state or two states would be that monumental sea change everyone is talking about?," he said. "No."

Perhaps he's right. But it is, of course, the most recent developments that stand out - particularly when the ground is shifting as quickly as it is in the gay marriage debate. This fall's votes may be seen as the truest representation of where the country is now.

If gay marriage advocates win in a couple of states this fall and local poll numbers continue to show strong public support for same-sex nuptials in Rhode Island, would Plante still welcome an Ocean State ballot question, as he has in the past? Yes, he said: it would be a hard fight, but voters should have the final say.

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