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  • Sasha Issenberg

August 3, 2004: Missouri approves 2004's first constitutional ban on same-sex marriage

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

ON THIS DAY IN 2004...

When Missouri legislators first introduced a proposal to write a ban on same-sex unions into the state constitution, in early 2004, no such couples were able to marry in the United States. By the time legislative leaders formally sent the proposed amendment to voters, in late May, much had changed. Gay marriages were taking place across Massachusetts, and the best tool that social-conservative activists had devised to block such arrangements nationwide — a Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — appeared doomed to failure on the floor of the Senate.

Amendment 2 would rewrite the Missouri Constitution specifying that “to be valid and recognized in this state, a marriage shall exist only between a man and a woman.” It represented the most modest, least restrictive marriage ban available to legislators; in other states, amendment language appeared to preclude future recognition of civil unions, municipal domestic-partnership arrangements, and possibly even partner benefits issued by private employers.

Still, the timing of a vote on the amendment was a matter of political controversy. Republican legislators were eager to see it considered in the November general election ballot, when they believed it could boost turnout for their their candidates — the state was a highly contested battleground in the presidential race — which Democratic Governor Bob Holden wanted to avoid. The state Supreme Court sided with the Democrats and ordered the amendment placed on the August 3 primary ballot. Despite negligible spending from the amendment’s supporters, turnout was significantly higher than campaign operatives had expected from a typically quiet summertime primary date. "We were out-organized by the competition, which was able to do a lot of organizing with very little resources. They activated the churches in a way that was very successful,” Human Rights Campaign field director Seth Kilbourn told The Washington Post. In the same article, HRC president Cheryl Jacques all but conceded defeat in every constitutional amendment that would come up that year. (That day, Holden lost his was defeated by Claire McCaskill, becoming the first incumbent Missouri governor to lose a primary.)

Missouri’s passed with over 70 percent of the vote, and Louisiana passed its own six weeks later. On election day in November, eleven other states would pass their own constitutional bans, some — like those in Ohio and Michigan — going much farther than Missouri’s. All of them were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court when it issued its opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges on July 26, 2015. In most Missouri counties, gay and lesbian couples were able to begin marrying immediately. Two weeks later, Governor Jay Nixon formally instructed all state agencies to comply fully with the ruling.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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