When Maine defeated gay marriage last month, it again proved that the civil rights of a minority should not be put to the whims of a majority. Marriage equality is inevitable, but the public will have to get used to married same-sex couples before we see justice at the ballot box. That’s why current efforts to legalize gay marriage in the legislatures of New York and New Jersey – states that do not have an initiative process – are so critical. Our only obstacle now is Democratic politicians who are letting what happened in Maine scare them into backing off. Meanwhile, the Washington DC City Council is expected to pass a marriage bill today – despite extortion tactics by the Catholic Church to withdraw funding for social services. It’s time for legislators in New York and New Jersey to stop making excuses. Time is running out in New Jersey, and Garden State Equality is running a solid grassroots campaign to convince the state legislature before it’s too late.

It is always difficult to persuade a majority of the electorate to vote for such an emotional issue like same-sex marriage. As Bill Harnsberger (the blogger “Bill in Portland Maine”) wrote the day after Question 1 passed, “the lesson we learned last night in Maine is pretty simple: if you want to deny the right of gay people to get married, just put it to a popular vote. Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut – I believe they’d all vote it down, too, if given the opportunity. Let’s not kid ourselves … this is gay marriage. And to well over half the people in this country in late 2009, you might as well call it pig vomit.”

The fact that 48% of Californians still voted to defeat Prop 8 (after a bad campaign), and 47% of Mainers voted to defeat Question 1 (after a good campaign) – is a good sign for the future. But until the older generation dies out, we are not going to win at the polls in most places. Which is why allowing it to happen in states where the voters can’t repeal it a few months later will convince voters the sky did not fall. Opponents of gay marriage thrive on unknown fears. Giving it the time will help voters make rational conclusions.

Iowa requires two super-majority votes in the state legislature to change its constitution, so the Court decision granting gay marriage there is safe. Five months later, a Des Moines Register poll found 92% of Iowans say it had no impact on their lives. By the time the legislature changes, there won’t be an appetite to change it. Likewise, the right has abandoned efforts to mess with our victories in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

But in New York – where Governor David Paterson has promised to sign gay marriage into law – the legislation is being held up. It passed the Democratic State Assembly a while back, but in the State Senate a few Democrats have threatened to switch parties (and thus control of the chamber) if it comes to a vote. Conventional wisdom is that Democrats are “spooked” by the passage of Question 1 in Maine. Facing a tough primary challenge next year, Paterson says he has a commitment from the Senate to vote later this year – but it’s unsure how many Democrats are willing to go along.

The matter, however, is far more urgent in New Jersey – where failing to act now in the state legislature could doom marriage equality for at least the next four years. Governor Jon Corzine vowed to sign it into law during the lame-duck session, whether he won or lost re-election. He lost, and his Republican rival Chris Christie says he would veto it. The state legislature has only a one-month window of opportunity to do the right thing.

But Democrats in the legislature are getting cold feet. They say they should focus on more pressing issues, like the economy. Never mind that gay marriage would be an economic boon to New Jersey – the way it has been for New England states that extended marriage benefits. And it’s not like the lame duck session will be voting on economic relief. Instead, the bills they are passing could arguably make the budget deficit worse. Unlike in New York, a temporary failure to act will be decisive.

Garden State Equality – New Jersey’s most prominent LGBT rights organization – has been mobilizing to pass gay marriage in the state legislature. With a team of grass-roots organizers (including some of my friends from the “No on 1” campaign in Maine), they are hitting the streets to mobilize the constituents of swing legislators. This is the kind of lobbying campaign that got the Maine state legislature to pass marriage equality in May. But unlike Maine, New Jersey doesn’t have a referendum process that could overturn what the legislature and Governor pass.

Last week on very short notice, 300 marriage equality supporters gathered on the Capitol steps in Trenton for the first day of the lame duck session. Another rally is scheduled for Thursday morning (December 3rd) to keep up the pressure on wavering legislators.

Some Democratic legislators are spooked by the November election results, and fear that voting for marriage equality will prompt a right-wing backlash. What they should really fear is the current enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters that could affect turnout in 2010. And if they fail to deliver for their base, don’t expect the LGBT community to turn out next year when they need them …

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hogarth helped organize out-of-state volunteers for the “No on 1” campaign in Maine.