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Steve Contorno
By Steve Contorno January 5, 2014

Head of a liberal think tank says 4 in 10 Americans live in states where gay marriage or civil unions are allowed

There’s no denying 2013 saw a sea change for same-sex couples who sought government recognition of their relationships. Both court decisions and legislative action meant that 10 additional states recognized gay marriage.

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, speculated Dec. 29 on CNN’s State of the Union that changing views toward the gay community will continue in 2014.

"This will be a wedge issue on the Republican side. I mean 10 years ago, we had Republicans pushing a federal marriage amendment in the Senate to ban gay marriage," she said. "Forty percent of the country is going to be in states that are tolerant of gay marriage or at least civil unions. And that number is only going to grow."

We wanted to see if Tanden’s number — that four in 10 Americans now live in states that recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions — is accurate.

We contacted the Center for American Progress to see how Tanden reached her number. They pointed us to a year-end round up from the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.

According to the organization, 38.37 percent of the population lives in states that allow same-sex marriage. (Note that this does not include civil unions, which we will address in just a bit.)

That figure was released before a federal judge in December overturned a Utah ban on same-sex marriages. In the days since that decision, hundreds of gay and lesbian couples were married in Utah, though the state has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt further ceremonies while the ruling is appealed.

Adding Utah to the mix, the Human Rights Campaign told PunditFact, would bring the total population living in states that allow gay marriage to 39.27.

That was calculated by taking U.S. Census data from 2010 and comparing it with a list of states where same-sex marriage has been legalized, either through the courts or by legislative action.

We wanted to double check the math ourselves.

Gay marriage is now legal in 18 states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Washington — plus the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan advocate for state legislative bodies.

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Civil unions or domestic partnerships between gay couples are allowed in Colorado, Nevada and Oregon.

Using the most recent U.S. Census data estimates from 2013, here’s how the population breaks down in states that allow same-sex marriage or civil unions:

State Population Percent of total population California 38,332,521 12.13 Colorado 5,268,367 1.67 Connecticut 3,596,367 1.14 D.C. 925,749 0.29 Delaware 646,449 0.20 Hawaii 1,404,054 0.44 Illinois 12,882,135 4.07 Iowa 3,090,416 0.98 Maine 1,328,302 0.42 Maryland 5,928,814 1.88 Massachusetts 6,692,824 2.12 Minnesota 5,420,380 1.71 Nevada 2,790,136 0.88 New Hampshire 1,323,459 0.42 New Jersey 8,899,339 2.82 New Mexico 2,085,287 0.66 New York 19,651,127 6.22 Oregon 3,930,065 1.24 Rhode Island 1,051,511 0.33 Utah 2,900,872 0.92 Vermont 626,630 0.20 Washington 6,971,406 2.21 Total 135,745,923 42.94

The total is about 43 percent. If you exclude the states that allow civil unions or domestic partnerships but not same-sex marriage, it comes out to about 39.15 percent of the population. By either measure, Tanden appears to be right.

We should note that the Illinois General Assembly and the governor last year moved to legalize gay marriage in the state, but licenses won’t be available until June 2014.

We also ran these numbers by opponents of same-sex marriage. Tanden’s figure was not disputed by Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council. But he said a better measure might be to compare the number of states where voters have approved ballot initiatives in opposition to same-sex marriage against states where residents voted in favor of it.

Thirty states have approved constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Those states make up two-thirds of the population and include California and Utah, where courts overturned voter referendums, and Colorado, Nevada and Oregon, where civil unions are legal. Only Maine, Maryland and Washington have held referendums that approved same-sex marriage laws. (We should point out that most states pass laws through the legislative branch, not via referendum.)

Courts also played a heavy role in allowing gay marriage in California, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New Jersey and Utah.

During her remarks, Tanden suggested that the number of individuals living in states that allow same sex marriage is "only going to grow." As recently as 2010, only seven states recognized gay marriage, comprising just 17 percent of the country.

But of the 29 states that don’t allow for same-sex marriages or civil unions, 25 have constitutional amendments that define marriage as between man and a woman. Many of those amendments "require popular votes, usually alongside legislative action," to change them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Efforts to overturn constitutional prohibitions have begun in several states and litigation has also been initiated in several states" but the NCSL also notes "the scope for continued legislative change is limited."

Our ruling

Tanden said, "Forty percent of the country is going to be in states that are tolerant of gay marriage or at least civil unions." Both expert sources and independently verified statistics back up those numbers if we define "tolerant" as states where same-sex marriage or civil unions are legal. Subsequent court decisions could raise or lower that number, and opponents note many of those states allowed same-sex marriage only after court intervention. But at the time she spoke, her statement was accurate, and we rate it True.


Our Sources

Neera Tanden, president for the Center for American Progress, interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Dec. 29, 2013

Human Rights Campaign, The Year of Greatest Accomplishments for the LGBT movement, accessed Jan. 2, 2013

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Relationship Recognition for Same-Sex Couples in the U.S., accessed Jan. 2, 2014

Email interview Anne Shoup, spokeswoman for the Center for American Progress, Jan. 2, 2014

NBC News, Utah asks Supreme Court to halt same-sex marriages pending appeal, Jan. 1, 2014

National Conference of State Legislatures, Defining Marriage: State Defense of Marriage Laws and Same-Sex Marriage, Dec. 23, 2013

Email interview with Rochelle Finzel withe National Conference of State Legislatures, Dec. 30, 2013

National Conference of State Legislatures, Same Sex Marriage, Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships, September 2010

United States Census Bureau, Annual population estimates: 2013, accessed Dec. 30, 2013

Email statement from Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, Jan. 3, 2014

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Head of a liberal think tank says 4 in 10 Americans live in states where gay marriage or civil unions are allowed

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