Arkansas Advocates Find Hope With Same-Sex Rulings (AP Analysis)

LITTLE ROCK — Supporters of gay marriage in Arkansas are encouraged by a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings supporting same-sex couples, but that optimism is tempered by the political reality that they have found few allies in elected office or at the ballot box.

From voters overwhelmingly approving a ban on gay marriage in 2004 to lawmakers this year passing resolutions supporting the Defense of Marriage Act that justices struck down, gay rights advocates are the first to admit the obstacles they face in trying to change minds.

The decisions last week offered hope to same-sex couples nationwide. Justices tossed out a part of the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits. The court didn't rule on California's same-sex marriage ban, leaving in place a trial court's ruling that it's unconstitutional and paving the way for same-sex marriages there to resume.

Supporters said the rulings help make the case for reconsidering Arkansas' ban on same-sex marriage and offer guidance for anyone who wants to challenge that amendment.

"I think the rulings did shed some light on the situation by noting that having second-class citizens and second-class marriages runs afoul of equal protection," said Holly Dickson, legal director for the ACLU of Arkansas. "It's a clear signal we're on stronger footing for a legal challenge, not just here but in all the states."

The head of the conservative group that campaigned for the marriage ban said that while he wasn't entirely pleased with the ruling, he was glad justices didn't find a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

"Same-sex marriage is not the foregone conclusion many would have us believe it is, but I doubt the debate is going away anytime soon," said Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council.

The immediate policy impact in Arkansas is mixed, especially for same-sex couples who traveled to another state to get married. Arkansas' constitution prohibits the state from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states, and their eligibility for federal benefits depends on what they're seeking.

For instance, immigration law focuses on where people were married, not where they live. But eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits basically depends on where a couple is living when a spouse dies.

Politically, however, the rulings offer a chance for gay marriage supporters to test whether public opinion in Arkansas is following that in other parts of the nation.

That much became clear the day after the rulings, with a group submitting a measure to the attorney general's office that would repeal the 2004 amendment voters approved banning gay marriage. If the measure is certified, Arkansans for Equality must collect at least 78,133 signatures from registered voters to appear on the November 2014 ballot.

"We understand this is an uphill battle, but this is a good fight," said Judd Mann, the high school art teacher from England who's heading up the effort. "It will be a hard battle and it will be a good and worthy battle."

It's a battle where voters and the state's public officials are the biggest obstacles. The University of Arkansas' annual Arkansas Poll last year showed that only 16 percent of very likely voters believed gay couples should be allowed to legally marry and 20 percent supported civil unions. Fifty-seven percent said there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple's relationship.

They've also seen major defeats at the ballot box. Aside from the gay marriage ban — which was approved by 75 percent of voters in 2004 — a proposal to ban unmarried couples who live together from adopting or fostering children was approved in the 2008 election. That measure, aimed primarily at same-sex couples, was struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2011.

The mood among the state's top officials, especially Democrats, has been just as disheartening for advocates. Only two Democratic congressional candidates running in Arkansas last year said they agreed with President Barack Obama's support for gay marriage, and they both were running in districts that weren't viewed as competitive for the party. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat who is seeking re-election next year, reiterated his support for Arkansas' gay marriage ban moments after the court's rulings.

But advocates say they believe the court rulings and the support growing nationwide for gay marriage may help, especially as more Arkansans encounter same-sex couples in the community.

"I think (the rulings) may encourage other state legislators and citizens to take it on for a progressive way...We hope one day sooner than later it will just become a non-issue," said Eric McDaniel, president of the Stonewall Democratic Caucus of Arkansas.

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