Gay marriage opinion shift: conservative lawmakers, pundits left scrambling

As public opinion moves in favor of gay marriage, members of Congress find they have to adjust their stance. Conservative pundits are beginning to acknowledge this as well.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Gabriela Fore, 6, of Upper Darby Pa., holds a sign with her moms in front of the Supreme Court as the court heard arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

This being the Easter/Passover Spring break for Congress, you’d think lawmakers back in their home districts would be eager to talk about the past week’s major news story – the latest developments on same-sex marriage, which has seen one of the most pronounced and rapid shifts in public opinion and political action in recent US history.

But no, they’re trying to figure it out too, and so are most of their constituents. Meanwhile, one-by-one (or so it seems) political figures are coming out for gay marriage.

Most recently, that’s US Rep. Justin Amash, (R) of Michigan, a conservative who used to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was argued before the US Supreme Court this past week.

“Real threat to traditional marriage & religious liberty is government, not gay couples who love each other & want to spend lives together,” Rep. Amash wrote in a Twitter exchange with The Huffington Post. “I support repealing federal definition of marriage portion of DOMA. Always have.”

Asked if gay couples should have the option to marry, Amash tweeted: “Of course. How can anyone stop a couple from getting married in their own way? I just want government out.” (Read the full exchange here.)

That’s essentially the position Sen. Rand Paul voiced recently, although the Kentucky Republican focused on the US tax code, which (as now enforced) prohibits the survivors in same-sex marriages allowed in nine states and the District of Columbia from receiving certain financial benefits when their spouses die.

It’s hard for many Republican lawmakers to make the leap Amash did for fear of being challenged from the right by a social conservative in a party primary.

But that hasn’t kept other Republicans from speaking out.

Former Utah governor, US Ambassador, and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman took the issue head-on in a column in The American Conservative last month.

“My marriage has been the greatest joy of my life. There is nothing conservative about denying other Americans the ability to forge that same relationship with the person they love,” Mr. Huntsman wrote.

“All Americans should be treated equally by the law, whether they marry in a church, another religious institution, or a town hall…. The party of Lincoln should stand with our best tradition of equality and support full civil marriage for all Americans.” (Read his full column here.)

Huntsman was among more than 100 conservatives and Republicans who filed a friend of the court brief in the DOMA case before the Supreme Court, among them former governors, GOP administration senior officials, prominent right-leaning pundits, and actor Clint Eastwood.

In the US Senate all but nine Democrats now publicly support same-sex marriage. The wavering nine are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Bill Nelson of Florida, Tom Carper of Delaware, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

On the Republican side, it’s looking increasingly like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska will join Rob Portman of Ohio, who recently announced his switch in favor of gay marriage (in his case, tied to the fact that his son is gay).

"The term 'evolving view' has been perhaps overused, but I think it is an appropriate term for me to use," she said a few days ago as reported by the Chugiak-Eagle River Star in her home state. “I've got two young sons who, when I ask them and their friends how they feel about gay marriage, kinda give me one of those looks like, 'Gosh mom, why are you even asking that question?'"

Meanwhile, some conservative pundits seem to be changing their position – or at least their view of where things are headed – as well.

“Whether it happens now at the Supreme Court or somehow later, it is going to happen,” Rush Limbaugh said this week. “It’s just the direction the culture is heading.”

(Limbaugh blames this on “a gay Mafia that has inflicted the fear of death, political death in the Republican Party…”)

“The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals,” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said. “That’s where the compelling argument is. ‘We’re Americans. We just want to be treated like everybody else.’ That’s a compelling argument, and to deny that, you have got to have a very strong argument on the other side. The argument on the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible.”

Slate columnist Amanda Marcotte sees a pattern of “concern trolling” among some conservative pundits

“Concern trolls are largely people who know that they can't argue their viewpoint on its merits, so instead they try to undermine the persuasively argued viewpoint with their ‘concerns,’” she writes.

For Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, that concern includes the prediction that if the Supreme Court rules that DOMA is unconstitutional, that will bring on an “assault on religion,” as he put it on the PBS program “Inside Washington.”

He uses as an example a Jesuit school like Georgetown University with married student housing for heterosexual couples only. “It will get sued,” he said. “This will become an assault on religion. And the religions, which I think are sincere in their beliefs, are going to be under assault and under attack.”

Whether or not that’s true, it’s probably way too soon to tell. The Supreme Court justices this week seemed in no hurry to declare the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

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