Battleground DOMA: What next for opponents of gay marriage?

After twin losses at the Supreme Court, the battleground shifts to the states, where social conservative leaders aim to 'fight like crazy,' with little help from the national GOP establishment.

Noah Berger/REUTERS
Enzo Catalano, 9, holds up a sign amongst thousands of revelers at Castro St. in San Francisco, Calif., after the United States Supreme Court delivered rulings on California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act June 26, 2013. Opponents of the ruling now face a long battle in the states, as support for gay marriage nationally grows.

Some are angry, others are philosophical, but opponents of same-sex marriage agree on one thing: The battle against gay marriage just got tougher, after twin losses in the Supreme Court that have given pro-gay-marriage forces a burst of momentum. 

But social conservatives are ready to press on in the states, in defense of a religiously based definition of marriage that has endured for millennia, even if they don’t expect much help from the Republican establishment. 

“The mix of decisions magnifies the fact that people who believe in normal marriage need to fight like crazy at the state level to ensure that they keep the right to define what they want marriage to be in their state,” says Gary Bauer, leader of the group American Values and one-time Republican presidential candidate.

For now, Christian conservative activists have a cushion. Gay marriage is banned in the constitutions of 30 states, and even though nationally, a growing majority of Americans supports a right to same-sex marriage, many individual states still tilt against it. Social conservative leaders also have a ready army of supporters, easily reached through churches and representing a significant portion of the Republican Party’s base.

Keeping the traditional-marriage-only wing of the GOP from becoming demoralized will be part of the battle. But after Wednesday’s rulings – which struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and opened the door to a resumption of gay marriages in California – conservative leaders expressed hope that their supporters would be all the more motivated to keep fighting.

Some leaders took a glass-half-full approach to the decisions, applauding the justices for, at least, not establishing a national right to same-sex marriage as the high court did for abortion in the 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade.  That, they say, gives them time to get organized and rally their troops, even if, by outward appearances, time is not on their side.

Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington, asserts that, in fact, time is not on the side of those seeking to create a right to same-sex marriage.  

“As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify,” Mr. Perkins says.

His ally Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, calls for pressure on Congress to pass legislation that will limit the impact of the DOMA ruling. And he goes back to a core focus of religious conservatives -- the selection of judges.

The Supreme Court’s decisions “underscore why people of faith must remain engaged and energetic in seeing genuine conservatives nominated and confirmed to the federal courts,” says Mr. Reed. That requires electing conservative senators who will make judicial confirmation battles a priority.

But especially alarming to some Christian conservative leaders is the culture war within the GOP that makes them feel that party leaders – both in Congress and at the Republican National Committee (RNC) – are abandoning them.

“I would say to Speaker Boehner and [Senate Republican leader] Mitch McConnell and the folks at the RNC, you better wake up soon, because if values voters decide that their investment in the GOP resulted in less than a zero return, the party will find itself without the only group that is saving it from political oblivion,” says Mr. Bauer.

Republican leaders need to spend as much time defending traditional marriage and other conservative values as much as they make the case for not raising taxes on billionaires and calling on Democrats to cut Social Security, Bauer continues, the anger rising in his voice.

“The idea that the Republican economic agenda is popular and is held back by the Republican social agenda is, like everything else in Washington, D.C., exactly upside down,” he says.

But judging by GOP leaders’ responses – or lack thereof -- to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage rulings, the schism between social and economic conservatives doesn’t look set to ease anytime soon. The Republican National Committee and its chairman, Reince Priebus, were silent on the decisions. Speaker Boehner said he was “disappointed” in the rulings, and hoped states would define marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Senator McConnell issued no comment.

They seemed to be following the playbook outlined in a recent report by an RNC task force that suggested opposition to gay marriage could harm a party trying to grow its appeal among demographic groups that went heavily Democratic last November.

 “On messaging, we must change our tone – especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters,” the report read. “In every session with young voters, social issues were at the forefront of the discussion; many see them as the civil rights issues of our time. We must be a party that is welcoming and inclusive for all voters.”

Indeed, given the political standoff in Congress, any Republican efforts to strengthen DOMA are already dead on arrival (and ditto efforts by Democrats to eliminate DOMA altogether).  So, by definition, the effort to defend traditional marriage goes to the states.

And in the wake of Wednesday’s rulings, the challenge is likely to get even more difficult in the court of public opinion.

Brian Powell, a sociology  professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, cites his research, which shows that when a childless gay couple legally marries, the public is must more likely to view them as a family, compared with a childless gay couple that is only living together.

“What that means,” Mr. Powell says, “is the validation by the Supreme Court that enables more people to be legally married should result in greater acceptance of gay marriage.”

Now that gay couples in California will soon be allowed to marry again, per the instruction of Gov. Jerry Brown (D), following the Prop 8 ruling, more than one-third of Americans will live in jurisdictions with legal gay marriage.

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