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Gay-rights groups view US election as big setback

Gay-rights activists celebrated a few bright spots on Election Day, but they also suffered some major setbacks - including losses by key supporters in Congress and the ouster of three judges who had ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in Iowa.

world Updated: Nov 04, 2010 11:30 IST

Gay-rights activists celebrated a few bright spots on Election Day, but they also suffered some major setbacks - including losses by key supporters in Congress and the ouster of three judges who had ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in Iowa.

On both sides of the marriage debate, the Iowa vote was seen as a signal that judges in other states could face similar punitive challenges.

The congressional results further clouded the prospects for repealing the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy so that gays could serve openly in the military. Democratic leaders, including President Barack Obama, hope for a repeal vote in the Senate during the upcoming lame-duck session, but the post-election climate may strengthen the hand of conservatives wary of repeal. And leading gay activists acknowledged that the Republican takeover in the House of Representatives likely doomed short-term hopes for major gay-rights legislation addressing workplace discrimination and federal recognition of same-sex couples.

"The loss of the House to anti-equality leaders is a serious blow," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. He said the incoming Republican House leadership had a track record of opposing gay-rights initiatives.

Among the Democratic losers on Tuesday were several staunch gay-rights supporters, including Senator Russ Feingold and Representative Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war veteran who volunteered to be the House leader of the effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."

Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes any role for gays in the military, welcomed the defeats of Murphy and Democratic Representative Joe Sestak, the former Navy admiral who lost his bid for a Senate seat.

Perhaps most sobering for gay activists was the removal of the three Iowa judges after a campaign intended to punish them for joining a unanimous ruling last year that the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated Iowa's constitution.

That ruling, making Iowa one of five states to legalize gay marriage, still stands. But gay marriage foes said they plan to press Iowa Republicans who took over the governor's office and the state House to work toward a new ban.

Justices Marsha Ternus, David Baker and Michael Streit will be removed at year's end after about 54 percent of voters backed their ouster _ the first time Iowa voters have removed a Supreme Court justice since the current system began in 1962.

The National Organization for Marriage and other foes of gay marriage around the country spent an estimated $1 million on the removal effort, while the three judges chose not to raise money and campaign.

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, depicted the judges' ouster, coupled with the Republican gains in Congress, as a "historic and stunning" victory for foes of gay marriage.

The Iowa result, he said, "sends a powerful message to any judge who thinks they can impose gay marriage by judicial fiat against the wishes of the people."

Evan Wolfson, a gay-rights lawyer who heads the national group Freedom to Marry, said the judicial recall was intended as "an intimidating, thuggish message" to other courts. The results set the stage for several likely state battles over same-sex marriage next year.

Gay-rights groups said the election of governors in Rhode Island and Maryland who support same-sex marriage created a chance for breakthroughs in those states.

Foes of gay marriage said Republican legislative gains could benefit their cause in Minnesota, where conservatives would like to put a gay-marriage ban on the ballot, and in New Hampshire, where some lawmakers would like to repeal the 2009 law legalizing gay marriage.

Some gay activists elsewhere had cause for celebration. David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, was elected as the fourth openly gay member of the US House, joining fellow Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Jared Polis of Colorado, who each won re-election.

In California's Alameda County, Victoria Kolakowski was elected a Superior Court judge; the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund said she is the first openly transgender trial court judge in America.