It's out in California, where a ballot initiative seeks to eliminate the right of same-sex couples in the Golden State to marry, overturning a decision of the state Supreme Court earlier this year. With less than four weeks until Election Day, Proposition 8 is currently supported by a plurality of California voters; it's gone back and forth all year.
A brief history of the issue, from Wikipedia (which seems credible in this case):
Until 1977, California did not explicitly define marriage as being between a man and a woman, but court decisions, and some statutes, dating from both statehood and the 1872 codification of the civil law, assumed as much. In 1977, the legislature amended Civil Code section 4100 (predecessor to what is now codified at Family Code section 300) to read that marriage is "a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman". In 2000, voters passed with 61% of the vote, ballot initiative Proposition 22, which changed the California Family Code to formally define marriage in California between a man and a woman. However, other laws have been passed by the legislature (since 1999) which recognize domestic partnerships and afford them some of the rights of marriage.
A number of developments arose in the wake of Mayor Gavin Newsom's 2004 decision to perform same sex marriages in San Francisco. The 3,995 marriages were annulled by the California Supreme Court, but San Francisco began a legal challenge that was consolidated with other cases as In re Marriage Cases. On May 15, 2008 the California Supreme Court, by a vote of 4–3, ruled that the statute enacted by Proposition 22 and other statutes that limit marriage to a relationship between a man and a woman violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. It also held that individuals of the same sex have the right to marry under the California Constitution. The court subsequently refused to issue a stay of its order. As of June 17, 2008, marriage between individuals of the same sex is currently valid or recognized in the state.
While the case was under way, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two legislative bills approving same-sex marriage. Anticipating that either the courts or the legislature might overturn Proposition 22, opponents of same-sex marriages introduced several attempts to place a constitutional amendment before voters that would prohibit same-sex marriages—and in some cases, domestic partnerships as well. Prior to 2008, none had made it to the ballot.
Some--Andrew Sullivan, I'm looking in your direction--are pointing a finger of blame at Gavin Newsom, whose pugilistic stance on gay marriage is now featured in a commercial produced by groups seeking to ban gay marriage. Certainly, Newsom's judgment often leaves something to be desired, and it would be a bitter irony if this ad proved to be the difference--especially considering that some already give him a share of the blame for Bush's re-election win in 2004, bolstered as it was by all those state-level referenda on gay marriage. But I'm hesitant to blame Newsom for doing, albeit perhaps in an unhelpful way, exactly what I wish more progressive politicians would do on this issue: stand up loud and proud for equality, and make the important point that "gay marriage" in this sense doesn't mean anything in the private sphere. Nobody can force the Catholic Church, or any other religious group, to sanctify a same-sex union--but in the eyes of the state, which does not recognize religion anyway (that's why we don't tax churches), there should be no distinction.
That aside, I have the sense--it probably would be difficult if not impossible to prove this, though maybe the "Freakonomics" guys could take a shot at it--that the tremendous uncertainty around the economy is driving the surge in support for the measure. Regrettably, it's human nature to seek scapegoats in times of trouble--and while there's obviously no rational connection between gay equality and the economy, and to my knowledge not even the most rabid anti-gay bigots have suggested as much, it seems possible that the general climate would push people toward a harsher view of this issue.
Meanwhile, I wish that progressive communities physical and virtual would gear up more to win this fight. I kicked in some money today here, and would encourage anyone reading this who agrees that the state shouldn't codify bigotry to do the same.