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Marriage equality advocates fly South, and not just for winter

Marriage equality advocates--emboldened by victories in courtrooms and legislatures across the country--are turning their attention to the deep-red South.
Robert Roman and Claus Ihlemann, of Virginia Beach, celebrate a ruling that declared Virginia's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional on Feb. 14, 2014, in Norfolk, Va.
Robert Roman and Claus Ihlemann, of Virginia Beach, celebrate a ruling that declared Virginia's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional on Feb. 14, 2014, in Norfolk, Va.

Marriage equality advocates -- emboldened by mounting victories in courtrooms and legislatures across the country -- are turning their attention to the deep-red South.

The group Freedom to Marry and local state LGBT equality organizations officially launched Southerners for the Freedom to Marry this week, a $1 million initiative to pave the way for equal protections and benefits currently denied to the hundreds of thousands of gay couples living in 14 southern states.

The campaign follows recent federal decisions striking down all or part of state bans on same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Oklahoma and Virginia -- three states the effort will focus on -- as well as a federal challenge to Texas’ 2005 voter-approved amendment banning same-sex nuptials.

Though many on both sides of the marriage equality debate believe the constitutionality of the issue will ultimately be decided nationwide at the Supreme Court level, advocates still believe it’s crucial to grow public support across the country -- even in areas that have typically been resistant to gay rights.

“The strategy has always been to create the climate for the Supreme Court to bring the country to a natural resolution,” said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which is directing the campaign. “We don’t have to win the freedom to marry in every southern state, but we want southern voices to be part of the chorus saying that America is ready for the freedom to marry -- all of America.”

The campaign will focus on Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. According to a December 2013 poll from Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, 46% of voters in the South said they favored marriage equality, while the same number -- 46% -- said they were opposed. Though it was the weakest region in the country in terms of support for same-sex marriage, Wolfson noted the results from the South were “certainly higher than most people would think.”

In addition to partnering with state LGBT equality organizations for field and media work, Freedom to Marry will also draw upon the influence and expertise of political leaders, some of whom are members of the GOP.

Former media adviser to President George W. Bush, Mark McKinnon, was named co-chair of the initiative down in Texas, along with Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro. The Lone Star State’s Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott both staunchly oppose same-sex marriage, as does every Republican running to replace Abbott. But McKinnon says his support for same-sex marriage is firmly rooted in his political allegiance to conservative principles, not antithetical to it.

“I’ve long believed as a Republican that opposition to gay marriage is philosophically inconsistent for a party that is supposed to support less government intrusion into our lives,” said McKinnon via email to msnbc. “We will be communicating with voters and opinion leaders that the idea of marriage equality has its roots firmly planted in the constitution and, therefore, deserves the support of those who say they support the constitution.”

In Florida, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the first and few Republicans in Congress to support same-sex marriage, said in an email she was “pleased” to be named an honorary co-chair of the campaign, and congratulated Freedom to Marry on “working to make marriage equality a reality in the South.”

And in Georgia, where the initiative was launched on Monday, Democratic Rep. John Lewis also lent his support to the cause. In a powerful web video, Lewis, once a friend and ally to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., called the right to marry a civil rights issue.

“I've fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color, not to stand up and speak out against discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters," he said.

On Tuesday, Lewis' home state became the latest to consider legislation that could sanction anti-gay discrimination in the name of religious liberty.