From St. Paul, Minn., to Lawrence, Kan., to Columbia, Miss., municipalities across the country are increasingly crafting laws to offer some rights to same-sex couples and gay individuals in defiance of their own states. The trend has occurred as public opinion grows more favorable toward same-sex marriage, with the success of local gay rights ordinances often depending on how much leeway state courts give localities in interpreting state laws.
Despite some legal setbacks – as in Bisbee – "in the overwhelming number of those cases, the local governments have prevailed," says Jennifer Pizer, an attorney with Lambda Legal, the nation's oldest legal organization working for gay rights.
In Tampa, Fla., the increasing willingness to embrace gay rights was reflected in a local ordinance unanimously passed last year that set up a domestic partnership registry allowing legal protections for same-sex couples involving matters such as medical decisions and hospital visitations.
"Things went very smoothly here," says Kate Taylor, assistant city attorney in Tampa. "We had very little opposition at the public hearings."
In other places, attempts to offer protections for gay people, which many see as a step toward same-sex marriage, have been volatile. In Pocatello, Idaho, a community with a significant Mormon population, the city council narrowly rejected an ordinance in April aimed at making discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity a misdemeanor crime. A month earlier, after Royal Oak, Mich., adopted an ordinance to ban discrimination against gays in housing and employment, a petition seeking to repeal the measure by referendum put it on hold.
In Bisbee, the town's foray into same-sex recognition drew fiery opposition. On the night the city council originally approved the ordinance, several people chastised members for flouting "God's law."