By Chris Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A handful of U.S. states are poised to take up the issue of gay marriage afresh, due largely to incoming lawmakers who may tip the balance in favor of the controversial measure.
In Maryland, New York and Rhode Island in particular, the legalization of same-sex marriages is moving ahead, organizers and supporters say.
"We have the numbers," said Maryland state Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr. "We've never been in a better position."
The November 2010 election brought a "significant shift," especially in the Senate, said Madaleno, one of Maryland's seven openly gay legislators, three of whom are newly elected.
Even more important, Maryland's Senate Judicial Proceedings committee, which has prevented gay marriage bills from reaching a floor vote, has several new, sympathetic members, said Morgan Meneses-Sheets of Equality Maryland, an advocacy group.
Majority leaders of both houses plan to co-sponsor gay marriage measures. Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose opponent was against gay marriage, has pledged to sign such a bill,
Nationwide, after the Congressional vote to repeal the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy which expelled thousands of gay people from the U.S. military, gay rights advocates are pushing ahead on marriage.
"The work of persuasion, of personal conversations, of talking to lawmakers and mobilizing against a well-funded anti-gay opposition" are among the primary tasks for the lobbying group Freedom to Marry, said founder Evan Wolfson.
"With the freedom to marry within reach this year in states such as New York, Maryland and Rhode Island, now is the time to have those conversations and move marriage forward," he said.
Nearly half of the states have amended their constitutions, however, to prohibit marriage between same-sex partners or defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, rendering gay marriage beyond reach any time soon.
In New York, where newly-inaugurated Gov. Andrew Cuomo strongly supports gay marriage, lawmakers remain divided but advocates say the prospects are improved with the popular governor's backing.
"Its chances only get better," said Democratic Sen. Thomas Duane, the state's only openly gay senator, who has said he would introduce a gay marriage bill and push for a vote by summer. "Public support grows every time the issue is debated."
Although not a supporter, Dean Skelos, leader of the majority Republicans in the Senate, has said he would not block such a bill coming to the Senate floor for a vote so legislators can make their positions known, according to rights group Empire State Pride Agenda.
Put to a so-called conscience vote, gay marriage has a better chance this year than it did in 2009, said Democratic Sen. Malcolm Smith of New York City, when the Assembly approved it but the Senate did not.
"It is premature to make predictions or attempt head counts based solely on prior votes, but there is reason to be confident," said Ross Levi of Empire State Pride Agenda.
One of the most vocal opponents, Bronx Democrat Sen. Ruben Diaz, would not comment on prospects for passage. "There are more pressing issues facing the state," such as the budget and overhauling ethics laws, Diaz said.
Gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Iowa and the District of Columbia, although a bill to revoke it was introduced in Iowa recently.
In California and New Jersey civil unions, which mimic but do not provide all the legal benefits of marriage, are being challenged in court.
The other West coast states, Hawaii and Illinois have broad domestic partnership or civil union provisions. Several states, including Pennsylvania, Minnesota, North Carolina and Indiana do not deal with the issue, neither granting nor denying it.
The fresh battles come with passionate opposition.
In Maryland, Republican Sen. Allan Kittleman said he would introduce a bill legalizing civil unions, drawing heat from fellow Republicans.
Maryland Delegate Don Dwyer, who opposes civil unions and gay marriage, said he "can't wait for the debate."
Should gay marriage pass, he said he is confident of a referendum which "will drive the conservatives to the polls," where he predicted it would be defeated.
Marriage bills were introduced this month in the House and Senate in Rhode Island, a heavily Roman Catholic but relatively liberal state, where polls show a majority of residents favor what advocates call "marriage freedom."
Newly elected Gov. Lincoln Chafee, whose predecessor vowed to veto gay marriage, voiced support at his inauguration, stressing the potential economic benefits.
But the Senate in Rhode Island is presided over by Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed, a gay marriage opponent.
(Additional reporting by Susan Schept in Arlington, Virginia and Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)