At Least Some Republicans Are Still Fighting Against Marriage Equality
For most Americans, the debate over same-sex marriage is over and marriage equality has won. This would not, however, include the social conservatives who continue to have a much too vocal role in the Republican Party.
By the time the Republican National Committee meets in Cleveland this summer, it will have been more than a year since the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that laws barring same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, thus seemingly bringing to an end one of the quickest transformations of American public social attitudes and law in recent memory. For a time in the wake of the decision, there was resistance at the state level to implementation of Court’s ruling to allow same-sex marriage, with the most notable examples coming in the form of Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis, who spent time in jail last summer for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, and a good part of the judiciary of the State of Alabama, which, led by a grandstanding theocratic Chief Justice, attempted to hold to the position that the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court don’t apply in Alabama. For the most part, though, the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell seemingly brought an end to the debate over same-sex marriage, although the debate has moved on in some cases to the related but different issue of whether and under what circumstances parties should be free to decline to refuse to provide services related to same-sex marriage if it violates their religious beliefs.
In fact, there’s seemingly just one place of national prominence left where it seems as though people still want to hold fast to the idea of supporting marriage equality, and that’s inside the Republican Party:
Republicans, already girding for their most tumultuous convention in decades, now have another fight brewing: a divisive battle over gay marriage on the party’s official national platform.
It’s an issue that drives intense passion, and one that splits the mainstream and evangelical wings of the GOP. With the convention less than four months away, both sides are mobilizing in anticipation of a bitter clash over whether the party should embrace a more moderate approach to gay nuptials, in keeping with a public that is more open to it, or maintain the hard line the party’s base demands.
Some of the party’s biggest financiers, attempting to transform the GOP’s approach, have been helping to bankroll the American Unity Fund, a group that has launched a well-organized, behind-the-scenes effort to lobby convention delegates who will draw up the platform. It is asking them to adopt language that would accommodate same sex marriage.
The organization, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and a growing army of volunteers spread out across the country, has the backing of billionaire investors Paul Singer, Dan Loeb, Seth Klarman and Cliff Asness, who have been outspoken in calling for the GOP to moderate its rigid stance on social issues.
American Unity Fund’s efforts are the most assertive yet to alter the party’s posture on gay marriage. During the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in January, staffers with the group huddled with influential party officials over drinks at the posh Belmond hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. The organization is also planning to have a presence at the committee’s spring meeting this month in Hollywood Beach, Florida. Over the past week, the group has reached out to a number of RNC members by phone.
“We are working to ensure that each and every delegate is empowered to vote their conscience and truly craft an inclusive Republican Party platform,” said Jerri Ann Henry, who is spearheading the group’s convention campaign. “We need to be inclusive.”
Social conservatives, alarmed at what they view as an effort to topple a central tenet of their movement, are also gearing up. Last week, Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council president and a vocal opponent of same sex marriage, secured one of Louisiana’s two slots on the platform committee. Perkins, who also served on the committee in 2012, is expected to take the lead in litigating any efforts to change the party’s position.
Social conservatives, though, remain on guard. During a recent meeting with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, some evangelical leaders expressed concern about the pro-gay marriage push, according to one activist who was present.
“Conservative forces need to understand there is a serious challenge, and they need to take it seriously,” said Jim Bopp, an influential social conservative activist who helped to craft the GOP platform in 2012.
“We’re prepared for the fight,” said Ed Martin, the president of Eagle Forum, a leading evangelical group. “It’s hand-to-hand combat.”
Martin predicted there would be little desire to alter party’s stance on marriage — doing so he argued, would discourage evangelical voters from heading to the polls in November.
Even starting the conversation, he warned, would have consequences.
“If the Platform Committee is fighting over marriage,” Martin said, “we’re coming out of the convention without any momentum at all.”
The Republican Party’s most recent official platform, adopted during the 2012 convention, took an uncompromising stance. At that time, the platform committee expressed its support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman, and ripped what it called “the court-ordered redefinition of marriage” as “an assault on the foundations of our society.”
The American Unity Fund wants the 2016 platform to look very different from its predecessor. From its headquarters, where about 10 staffers work, Henry keeps a spreadsheet of where each state stands on its delegate selection process. All 56 states and territories send two members — one man and one woman — to the Platform Committee, and each state has its own process for determining who is chosen. For many states, determining who gets sent to Cleveland is a weeks-long process, beginning in local party meetings and concluding with a state convention.
The group is looking to lobby delegates across the country — including in liberal, gay marriage-friendly states like California, and in more conservative strongholds like Georgia and Texas, where it is convinced some party figures may be receptive to message. In North Carolina, the organization is seeking out individuals who have been turned off by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s support for a law that would require transgender people to officially change the gender specified on their birth certificate to use the public restroom of their choice.
In many states, the group has already put in weeks of work, identifying people who they think would be favorable to them and encouraging them to seek out Platform Committee slots. A central part of the pitch to delegates, Henry said, is that the party needs to moderate its approach — or face electoral consequences.
“It’s necessary if the party is to remain viable in the years to come,” she said.
Another part of the argument: that gay marriage is now settled law, following the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.
In a rational universe, of course, the Republican Party would have used the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell as an opportunity to get rid of the albatross of a platform opinion opposed by a large portion of the American public and put the issue of marriage equality to rest. Not only did the Court’s decision mark the end of the legal debate over the issue of marriage equality given the fact that it was exceedingly unlikely that the Court would revisit the decision any time soon even before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, but it also arguably marked the end of the social debate over the issue that had begun some two decades earlier. Even before the Court handed down its decision, polling showed that the majority of Americans supporting same sex marriage had hit a new high, with only self-identified Republicans and older voters opposing the idea in significant numbers. Polling taken immediately after Obergefell was handed down, meanwhile, showed that most Americans supported both the Court’s decision and the general idea of same-sex marriage, although other polling continued to show that Republicans still opposed marriage equality while most of the Republican candidates for President spoke out against the decision in one way or another.
Given all of that, one would think that the the Republican Party would use the occasion of the Supreme Court’s decision to reevaluate it’s platform position on marriage equality. As it stands, there’s plenty of evidence that the party’s past position on this issue poses the danger of harming the party in the future among key demographic groups such as younger voters who overwhelmingly support marriage equality and suburban voters who seem inclined to leave the debate behind now that the Supreme Court has ruled on the matter. The fact that there’s a good chance that this might not happen, and that there is a good chance that the GOP will once again adopt a platform that contains a provision opposing same-sex marriage is another indication of the extent to which social conservatives, who clearly represent a minority viewpoint on this issue at this point, have and outsized influence on the party. Because of their ability to organize, these groups will likely be able to maintain control of the party’s platform committee and keep the outdated provisions regarding banning same-sex marriage in the platform notwithstanding the fact that they have lost the that particular battle. While this is hardly likely to be the decisive issue in the 2016 elections, it is also not likely to go over very well with the very voters that Republicans need to attract if they are going to have a chance of winning this year, or in the years that follow. Of course, this is the price the GOP must pay for the alliance it made with social conservatives so many years ago. Some conservatives, such as Barry Goldwater, saw the danger in this decision, but they weren’t listened to and now the GOP is stuck with the fact that it must bow to the demands of a group that clearly doesn’t represent America as a whole and which certainly has a strange view of what constitutes individual liberty and limited government. In the end, they’ve got nobody but themselves to blame for that.