Conventional wisdom has long held that a Supreme Court decision establishing same-sex marriage rights nationwide would resolve the issue as a political matter, especially in the 2016 presidential race.
Republicans who oppose gay marriage could simply say, “The court has spoken,” and then move on, the thinking went.
Not so fast.
Now that the Supreme Court has spoken – ruling 5 to 4 that the Constitution guarantees the right to gay marriage – Republican presidential candidates may find the issue just as challenging, or even more so, analysts say. Vocal social conservatives in the race have doubled down in their push for a constitutional amendment undoing the Supreme Court’s ruling. And they can pressure other candidates on that question.
The issue is likely to come up in debates, both during the primaries and in the general election. Expect the Democrats – who are in line with Americans’ majority support for gay marriage – to make this a wedge issue. Other gay rights issues, such as workplace protections, are also certain to come up.
“I’m not sure [the Supreme Court ruling] lets Republican presidential candidates off the hook,” says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. “There are constituencies in the Republican Party who are going to want to know what candidates think about [same-sex marriage]. It will be very difficult to push it aside.”
Pressure on the Republican National Committee to drop opposition to gay marriage from the party’s platform is also likely to escalate, in light of today’s ruling. Though nearly two-thirds of Republicans oppose gay marriage, according to the Pew Research Center, support is growing – especially among younger Republicans. Overall, 57 percent of Americans support gay marriage in the latest Pew poll.
A host of other issues remain surrounding gay marriage, which candidates will be asked to respond to, including controversial religious-freedom laws that aim to protect the rights of those with sincerely held religious beliefs, but which some supporters of gay marriage find offensive. Conservative religious schools fear they will lose their tax exemptions.
Of the reactions released so far, all by Republican presidential candidates opposed the Supreme Court ruling, as expected. But they differed in tone. Some were defiant, others appealed for respect.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is expected to enter the race soon, called the ruling “a grave mistake” and reiterated his support for a constitutional amendment.
“The only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the US Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage," Governor Walker said in a statement.
Such an amendment would be impossible to pass, observers say, given the requirement that three-quarters of the states ratify it, and so his pronouncement is effectively a symbolic gesture. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another 2016-er, is the biggest champion of a marriage amendment.
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who announced his candidacy Wednesday, was also clearly not in the “court has spoken” camp.
“Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that," Governor Jindal said in a statement.
As the governor of a state that did not already recognize same-sex marriage, Jindal’s posture toward Friday’s ruling has special significance. Ditto Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is expected to enter the race soon.
“Neither governor would be able to do anything to stop same-sex marriage in their state,” in light of Friday’s decision, National Journal notes.
“But they could take actions to speed up or delay implementation of the ruling – actions that would surely become a topic of the presidential campaign over the next year.”
At press time, Governor Kasich had yet to release a statement on the decision, though in April he told reporters at a Monitor luncheon that he would be willing to attend a gay friend’s wedding, suggesting some ease with the issue. But he was also clear that he supports only the traditional definition of marriage.
The two candidates from Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both included pleas for respect on all sides in their reaction statements.
“In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side,” wrote Mr. Bush in a statement. “It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate.”
Senator Rubio said that while he disagreed with the decision, “we live in a republic and must abide by the law.”
Rubio ended his statement with a sentiment of live-and-let-live.
“A large number of Americans will continue to believe in traditional marriage, and a large number of Americans will be pleased with the court’s decision today,” Rubio said. “In the years ahead, it is my hope that each side will respect the dignity of the other.”
Political handicappers see both Bush and Rubio as top-tier candidates, and so it is no accident that their reactions seemed aimed at a general election audience – affirming support for traditional marriage to woo core Republicans, but also appealing to supporters of gay marriage in the calls for respect.
For Democrats, Friday’s ruling was a joyous moment – and a chance to keep the drumbeat going on gay rights.
“While we celebrate today, our work won’t be finished until every American can not only marry, but live, work, pray, learn, and raise a family free from discrimination and prejudice. We cannot settle for anything less,” said Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner for 2016.
Speaking from the Rose Garden, President Obama called the court’s ruling “an extraordinary achievement.”
“This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal we are all more free,” the president said.
Mr. Obama acknowledged the range of views on same-sex marriage, and that “opposition in some cases has been based on sincerely held beliefs.” He called on Americans to “revere our deep commitment to religious freedom.”
“But today should also give us hope that on the many issues with which we grapple, often painfully, real change is possible,” Obama said.