A political sign against Maryland’s same-sex marriage initiative — Question 6 — is seen outside the entrance to St. Joseph Church in Largo, Md., Nov. 3. Voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington state all voted, albeit by slender margins, to allow same- sex marriage. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — After a string of 32 straight referendum successes in states in defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman since 1998, supporters of the traditional definition of marriage saw defeat in three states at the polls this November.

On Election Day Nov. 6, voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington — albeit by slender margins — approved of allowing same-sex marriage.

In Minnesota, a referendum bid to define marriage as that between one man and one woman also failed. Voters’ action does not make same-sex marriage legal, but they cleared the way for the Legislature or courts to move to permit such marriages.

Maryland and Washington voters upheld a law passed earlier in the year, and Maine voters reversed the results of a statewide referendum in 2009. The votes bring the number of states permitting same-sex marriage to nine, plus the District of Columbia.

Supporters of traditional marriage said they were heavily outspent by backers of same-sex marriage in each state.

In response to the referendum outcome, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, said it was a disappointing day for marriage and called for renewed efforts to strengthen and protect traditional marriage and family life.

“The meaning of marriage … cannot be redefined because it lies within our very nature,” he said.

Catholic teaching says that same-sex unions violate the authentic Christian understanding of marriage of being between one man and one woman.

The legal definition of marriage in the nation’s largest state, California, remained unsettled. A 2-1 majority of a three-member federal appeals court panel ruled in February that Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriages approved by voters in 2008, was unconstitutional because it violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under law. In upholding a lower court ruling, the panel said a right once given — as the state had prior to the vote — could not be taken away.

A majority of the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a petition for a rehearing by the full court but stayed the ruling pending an appeal. Backers of Proposition 8 in July asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. The high court has not acted on the request.

Besides the California law, the U.S. Supreme Court has before it multiple petitions of lower court rulings related to same-sex marriage, including a challenge to aspects of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

But a U.S. District Court judge in November upheld a Nevada law defining traditional marriage, saying there was a “legitimate state interest” in “the protection of the traditional institution of marriage.” And in August, a Hawaii court declared that a law banning same-sex marriage was “not unconstitutional.”

North Carolina voters in May approved a constitutional amendment by a 3-2 margin defining traditional marriage. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, which recognizes civil unions, vetoed a same-sex marriage bill in February, saying the issue should be put before voters.

More than three dozen U.S. religious leaders signed a letter in January objecting to the specter of religious groups being forced to treat same-sex unions “as if they were marriage.”

However, the Episcopal Church in the United States approved in July liturgical resources for the blessing of same-sex relationships.

And President Barack Obama, in a May television interview, gave his own blessing, saying, “Personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Even in defeat, some lessons were learned, say church officials.

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said good things have resulted from the amendment effort there that, looking ahead, will benefit marriage and other public policy positions the Minnesota Catholic Conference supports.

“I feel like we’ve trained thousands of marriage advocates who can go out and be effective communicators of this important and beautiful institution for decades to come, and that is really an investment in the future,” Adkins said.

In response to some polls showing increasing support for same-sex marriage — including among a majority of Catholics and Hispanics — the Catholic Conference of Illinois prepared what it called a toolkit supporting traditional marriage.

“There definitely is a shift in public opinion,” said Zachary Wichmann, the director of government relations for the state Catholic conference. “We want to make sure Catholics know what the church teaches, but more important, that they know why the church teaches that.”

The struggle over the redefinition of marriage is not limited to the United States.

Denmark permitted the first “registered partnerships” in 1989.

In France, Catholic bishops and a prominent lay group have vowed to resist the government’s proposed legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry and adopt. Legalizing same-sex marriage was among campaign pledges made by President Francois Hollande, who was elected in May.

A draft same-sex marriage bill is to be debated in January by France’s National Assembly.

In Spain, the nation’s bishops sought to reverse a law passed in 2005 and upheld after seven years of court battles by the nation’s Constitutional Court in November. “Right reason demands everyone act according to conscience and beyond party discipline in this key area and that no one votes to endorse a law which so badly damages society’s basic structures,” they said.

Same-sex marriage is legal in Mexico City and such marriages are recognized throughout the country. Mexico’s Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling Dec. 5 struck down a law banning gay marriage in southern Oaxaca state, and the court action could open the door to legalization of such unions nationwide.

Argentina and South Africa passed laws this year permitting same-sex marriage, and governments in England, Scotland and New Zealand announced their intent to enact such laws in 2013.

However, there are 78 countries — many of them in Muslim nations, in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world — where homosexual acts themselves are still considered a crime and are punishable by jail and even the death penalty.

— By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service