Despite the contentious debate surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage, both advocates and opponents can agree on one thing: The next few months will be crucial in the fight to define marriage in Connecticut.

In the wake of Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s announcement on Friday that she would veto any bill that allows same-sex couples to marry, two opposing advocacy groups kicked off lobbying campaigns Wednesday in preparation for a pitched battle over legislation that could defy her threat. Rell signed a bill legalizing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in 2005, which she credited with extending civil rights to all couples regardless of gender. But she continues to maintain that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

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“While I am pleased that the legislature made it clear that we recognize and support civil unions, at the same time, marriage in Connecticut is defined in statute as the union of a man and woman,” Rell spokesman Adam Liegeot ’94 said.

Despite the threat of an eventual veto, both the Family Institute of Connecticut, which hopes to define marriage as a union between a man and woman, and the same-sex marriage advocacy group Love Makes a Family are focusing their efforts on influencing the legislation they expect will be produced this session. Both groups held press conferences in Hartford on Wednesday morning to announce their goals for the coming months.

Love Makes a Family Executive Director Anne Stanback said her organization will lobby for the legalization of same-sex marriage in the bill, which has not yet been written and will most likely originate in the Judiciary Committee.

The committee would need to send the bill to the floor of the House or the Senate by April 13. Rep. Michael Lawlor, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he does not expect the bill to leave the committee until close to the deadline.

But the Family Institute of Connecticut hopes to make the bill into a nonbinding referendum on same-sex marriage that would serve as a litmus test of citizens’ views, Executive Director Brian Brown said. The referendum would presumably go before Connecticut voters on either the 2007 or 2008 ballot, he said.

The organization ultimately aims to pass a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman, Brown said. But because the current composition of the judiciary committee favors a pro-same-sex marriage bill — its two chairs attended the Love Makes a Family press conference Wednesday morning — the group is setting its immediate sights on demonstrating that public opinion is on its side.

“That the majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage should say something to you,” Brown said. “The polls consistently show this. When the people can vote, they vote to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”

But Stanback said the numbers of supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage are roughly equal, and that same-sex marriage advocates are gaining strength.

Though Rell’s recent announcement presents a setback, Stanback said, Love Makes a Family hopes to convince Rell to reverse her position.

“I think that if [Rell] will sit down and meet with our members and keep an open mind, I can’t believe that she will not be persuaded that this is the fair thing to do and that it will be a credit to her legacy,” Stanback said.

To override a Rell veto, supporters would need 101 of 151 votes in the House and 24 of 36 votes in the Senate.

The battle is not limited to the legislature. Eight same-sex couples have sued the state, contending that only having the option of civil unions violates their constitutional rights to equal protection, due process and free expression and association. The plaintiffs’ claim was denied at the superior court level, and the case is now headed to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

The possibility of a court-ordered legalization of same-sex marriage has spurred the Family Institute of Connecticut to intensify its push for a constitutional amendment, Brown said.

“The statutory definition of marriage isn’t going to stop the courts if they decide out of thin air to allow same-sex marriage,” he said. “We’re running low on time.”

The two advocacy groups will hold separate rallies at the state capitol on Feb. 21 to hear speakers and meet with legislators.