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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Andrea Dahl, 56, center, and her partner of 25-years Coral Mangus, 63, are married in the lobby of the Salt Lake County offices by Reverend Patty Willis on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 surrounded by friends and family. Mangus and Dahl joined hundreds of other same-sex couples at the Salt Lake County offices to request marriage licenses with numerous officiants performing wedding ceremonies right after. A federal judge in Utah struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage last Friday, saying the law violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process.
Analysis: 5 reasons gay marriage is winning
First Published May 22 2014 07:58 pm • Last Updated May 30 2014 03:16 pm

Washington • What a difference 10 years makes.

In May 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage. Six months later, with dire warnings about schoolchildren being forced to read "Heather Has Two Mommies" and threats of legalized polygamy, so-called "values voters" passed bans on same-sex marriage in 11 states and ushered George W. Bush to another four years in the White House.

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Fast-forward to 2014, and the cultural and legal landscape could hardly be more different. Today, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage, and federal courts have struck down bans in 11 more states, including Utah. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages after ditching a central portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act last year, and 44 percent of Americans now live in states that allow same-sex marriage.

After four same-sex couples filed suit Wednesday challenging Montana’s ban on same-sex marriage, neighboring North Dakota is the only state that isn’t facing a challenge to its gay marriage ban — at least not yet.

So what changed? The issue is far from settled — and some conservatives insist that it never will be — but pro-gay groups clearly have the momentum. Here’s why:

1. Rapid cultural shifts

The culture changed faster than conservatives thought possible. Led by the popular gay characters on "Will & Grace" and "Glee," gays and lesbians are more visible in public life, and Americans are growing increasingly comfortable with that. A generation ago, coming out as gay was a career-killer; now it’s almost trendy.

Within religion, the 2003 election of openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson dramatically shifted the conversation about gays in leadership, and Presbyterians and Lutherans voted to allow gay clergy with barely a shrug. The wildly popular Pope Francis changed the tenor of the discussion by famously asking "Who am I to judge?" as the world’s largest Christian denomination struggles to reclaim its moral credibility on sexual ethics in the wake of a clergy abuse scandal.

Coupled with an aggressive campaign targeted at gays and lesbians to come out to their families and colleagues, America now has innumerable friends, co-workers, celebrities, siblings and children that are the new face of the gay movement. And that, says Evan Wolfson of New York-based Freedom to Marry, carries more weight than any court ruling or legislative vote.

"There’s no question that popular culture and celebrities and religious figures who speak out create the air cover for the ground game of personal conversations," said Wolfson, whose group has been at the forefront of the legal fights over marriage. "And that is what really closed the deal."


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2. An ally in the White House

It’s hard to overestimate the power of a bully pulpit, and there’s no bigger microphone than the chief executive’s. While President Barack Obama may be the country’s first black president, he will also be remembered as the most pro-gay occupant of the Oval Office — even if it took him time to get there.

Obama’s White House shaped the cultural narrative around gay rights by ending the 17-year Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military. Like Obama, millions of Americans reached the same conclusion: If gay men and women can die for their country, why shouldn’t they be allowed to get married? And if it’s OK for the military, why not for everyone else?

In addition, Obama’s Justice Department dropped its defense of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, concluding that the federal ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Attorney General Eric Holder encouraged state attorneys general to do the same, and when the attorneys general in Pennsylvania and Oregon followed Holder’s advice, federal courts swiftly struck down bans in both states.

"No one defended the law in court," fumed Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, the Catholic bishops’ point man on same-sex marriage. "Is this justice, or just a farce?"

Whatever it was, it worked for the gay-rights side.

"If we would have known 10 years ago that the rule of law would no longer be in play, maybe we would have had a different strategy," added Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who accused Obama of "unleashing lawlessness on the country."

3. A problem of overreach

Starting with the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, conservative activists concluded that the only solution to stopping gay marriage was a nationwide ban. A federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage has languished in Congress for years — and now Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, calls such a strategy "a politically ridiculous thing to talk about right now."

In addition, conservative groups resisted moves to compromise on a half-measure like civil unions; Perkins’ organization calls civil unions nothing more than "a slow-motion surrender." And that, said veteran gay-marriage proponent Jonathan Rauch, was a critical mistake.

"They set an impossible goal for themselves by saying from day one that the goal of success would be not one gay marriage on not one square inch of American soil, and that was never going to happen," said Rauch, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

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