Gay and lesbian couples can legally marry in only a handful of US states. In each state, the decision to allow legal same-sex marriages has been extremely controversial and often pitted gay and lesbian families and advocates against religiously conservative organizations in the fight to sway public opinion. Some states have legalized same-sex marriage through the legislative process, while in other states the high court has ruled in favor of legalization.
Two states, Maine and California, had their laws favoring same-sex marriage later reversed by voter referendum. California's Supreme Court initially ruled in favor of legalizing gay marriage in June 2008, and thousands of gay and lesbian couples immediately wed. A strong opposition movement, spearheaded by religious conservatives, succeeded in adding a voter referendum to the November 2008 ballot asking Californians to repeal the law. By a narrow majority, voters chose to overturn the law.
In November 2009, the same voter referendum process was applied in Maine, whose legislature had voted to legalize same-sex marriage the previous summer. Voters again narrowly chose to repeal that state's marriage equality law.
The states that currently allow gay and lesbian couples to marry are:
Massachusetts. This New England state was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples was a violation of the state's constitutional guarantee of equal treatment under the law. The state began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples on May 17, 2004.
Connecticut. Technically, Connecticut was the third state to legalize same-sex marriages, after Massachusetts and California; however, California's voters overturned that state's law in 2008. Connecticut's Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry in 2008. Previously, Connecticut offered civil unions to gay couples in lieu of marital rights.
Iowa. The first state in the Midwest to decisively legalize same-sex marriages, Iowa's highest court unaminously ruled in April 2009 that excluding same-sex couples from the rights and responsibilities of marriage violated Iowa's constitution.
Vermont. In 2000, Vermont was the first state to offer legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples in the form of civil unions. In 2009, the Vermont legislature voted to legalize same-sex marriages but the bill was vetoed by Governor Jim Douglas. Both houses of the legislature then voted to override the veto, making Vermont the first state to legalize same-sex marriage through the legislative, rather than legal, process.
New Hampshire: As of January 1, 2010, New Hampshire becomes the fifth state to offer marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples. The state's legislature voted to approve same-sex marriage in 2009 and the bill was signed into law by Governor John Lynch.