For Marriage Equality Foes, It’s 1972

For anti-same-sex-marriage leader Brian Brown, 2014 feels like the year before the U.S. Supreme Court recognized abortion as a constitutional right, in its 1973 decision Roe v. Wade.

For anti-same-sex-marriage leader Brian Brown, 2014 feels like the year before the U.S. Supreme Court recognized abortion as a constitutional right, in its 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Gay marriage via Shutterstock

“Inevitable” has become a nasty word in the religious right lexicon, particularly when it comes to same-sex marriage. At the conservative Christian conferences I’ve attended lately, I often hear the word dripping with contempt from activists’ mouths whenever they preach against something the rest of the country is steadily accepting: nationwide marriage equality.

“It’s 1972 for marriage,” anti-same-sex-marriage leader Brian Brown told a crowd of opponents of abortion and same-sex marriage gathered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on May 2 for a conference co-sponsored by the Virginia-based nonprofit the Manhattan Declaration. “What would you do? What changes would you make?”

What Brown—who makes his living fighting marriage equality as the president of the National Organization for Marriage and travels in circles where abortion and same-sex relationships are seen as societal evils—was saying was that 2014 feels like the year before the U.S. Supreme Court recognized abortion as a constitutional right, in its 1973 decision Roe v. Wade.

And while he might have mocked “what the intelligentsia are saying about the inevitability of the demise for marriage” in his speech that night, I heard an element of fear in Brown’s voice.

And for good reason.

Last year, the Supreme Court effectively ruled that the federal government must recognize valid same-sex marriages, when it struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The ruling doesn’t entirely ban all laws that discriminate against same-sex marriages, but it came close enough to give marriage equality opponents a hell of a fright.

Many Americans expect the Supreme Court to decide the broader question of whether same-sex marriage is protected by the U.S. Constitution sooner rather than later, and I think it’s fair to say that the general public perception is that the DOMA decision is the beginning of the end for legalized discrimination against same-sex couples, that it’s only a matter of time before most state bans on same-sex marriage fall, and that the Supreme Court will likely lean in the direction of equal marriage rights for same- and opposite-sex couples if the opportunity arises.

But based on my observations at right-wing conferences, I want to caution against complacency: Within religious right circles, the DOMA decision has become a rallying cry. This, they say, is the time to amp up their fight for the status quo, to “pray away” same-sex marriage.

For marriage-equality foes, it’s Hail Mary time, and the anti-equality camp has learned many important lessons from that other great “anti” movement to which it is closely aligned—the movement that continues, successfully, to fight against the other right that American society once thought was settled as a matter of justice and law: the anti-choice movement.

Brown’s questions about what they would “do differently” must resonate with anti-abortion activists, who are constantly fighting for a do-over: What would you have done differently to stop the Supreme Court from legalizing abortion in the United States?

Conservative Christian groups are hard at work carrying out a years-long legal and legislative strategy to stop same-sex marriage. The Christian right will likely continue to push back against marriage equality (and other LGBT issues) even if it is legalized countrywide. After all, just as social conservatives continue to reject the validity of Roe, they reject the idea that society will permanently accept marriage equality. The fight is far from over. In their eyes, the fight is never over.

Fundamentalist Christians as “Victims” of Marriage Equality

Brown used to go on television bragging about the winning streak of the 30-plus states that criminalized same-sex marriage through voter referenda. The narrative perpetuated by his organization was that perhaps “activist” judges were willing to “redefine” marriage, but given the choice, the mostly straight American people would always vote to keep same-sex couples from marrying.

The streak ended in 2012, when voters in Minnesota rejected a ban on same-sex marriage and voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington legalized it. At this point, 18 states and the District of Columbia provide marriage rights and benefits to both opposite- and same-sex couples.

In the few years leading up to the 2012 election, anti-equality activists saw the public opinion polls turning against them, and began rebranding themselves and their arguments, borrowing much of their strategy from the anti-choice movement. Since then, activists have pushed the strategy into high gear.

The idea is to gain the public’s sympathy with claims that same-sex marriage presents potential harms to children and threatens religious liberty, just as anti-choice groups have made false claims that abortion harms women, and have made demands to be exempted from federal health insurance laws on the basis of their so-called religious liberty.

And the movement has proven deft in its ability to change the frame of the argument. Groups like the emerging powerhouse the Alliance Defending Freedom—a well-funded Arizona legal nonprofit that fights court cases from a fundamentalist Christian perspective—have usurped LGBT activists’ language of discrimination and inequality: Now it is discrimination to force a business owner to treat a same-sex couple the same as a straight couple.

Many of the clients the Alliance defends are small business owners sued by same-sex couples after refusing service in the name of Christianity.

The Alliance defended the movement’s cause célèbre, a case that involved a photographer in New Mexico who refused to document a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony and was successfully sued. The Alliance appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.

The Alliance has also defended public servants, such as Rose Marie Belforti, a town clerk in Ledyard, New York, who refused in the name of her religion to sign marriage licenses to same-sex couples shortly after the state legalized same-sex marriage in the summer of 2011. With the Alliance’s assistance, Belforti worked out a deal with the town to delegate the job duties she disliked to a deputy clerk.

At conferences I’ve attended, and in emails and mailings from groups on the Christian right, I’ve observed that these have become signal cases—evidence, in the minds of the Christian right, not of the evolution of laws that protect minorities against discrimination, but rather of religious (i.e., Christian) persecution.

Discussing these cases at the Manhattan Declaration conference in Philadelphia, Alliance President Alan Sears outlined a brave new world, where Christians will be persecuted for what they see as their righteousness.

“Can you imagine a Muslim caterer being ordered to serve bacon for a Christian wedding?” Sears asked. “Or can you imagine a Jewish bookseller being forced to sell Ku Klux Klan promotional materials? Can you imagine a Black Baptist painter being required to paint a mural celebrating and upholding slavery?”

Audience members gasped; they shook their heads.

Comparing same-sex couples in love to Klansmen is usually the fastest way to lose the debate, which could have something to do with the movement pivoting to arguments that present a friendlier, more compassionate visage.

After Sears’ fiery speech, movement leader Robert P. George—one of the original drafters of the 2009 Manhattan Declaration manifesto that grew into the eponymous nonprofit—and millennials Sherif Girgis, who is studying law at Yale University, and Ryan T. Anderson, who is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, discussed how to frame opposition to same-sex marriage for a younger, secular audience. The trio wrote 2012’s What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense.

On the panel, Anderson explained their reasoning behind opposing marriage equality.

“The reason the government’s in the bedroom is that a certain type of relationship can produce a child, and children deserve a mother and a father,” Anderson said. “It’s based on an anthropological truth that men and women are distinctly complementary. It’s based on the biological fact that reproduction requires a man and a woman and a social fact that children deserve a mother and a father.”

To bolster the claim of sociological evidence that children do best with opposite-sex couples, Anderson alluded to University of Texas sociology professor Mark Regnerus, whose 2012 national random study purported to show that kids raised by their biological parents, who stayed married throughout their childhoods, excelled in a variety of social and economic indicators over children raised in “same-sex families.”

But what were labeled same-sex families in the study were actually children raised in mostly broken homes wherein one parent at some point in the child’s life had a “same-sex romantic relationship.”

Regnerus’ deceptive phrasing has allowed marriage-equality foes to wield this study—funded primarily by the conservative Witherspoon Institute that George co-founded—in state legislatures and in courts. When Regnerus’ study was brought up later during the conference, speakers omitted the fundamental methodological flaws that led to the study’s widespread condemnation, most recently by a federal judge in Michigan.

The move to argue evidence of harm over ideology has similarly played out in the anti-abortion movement. Anti-abortion advocates also lean on unproven—and sometimes disproven—claims that fetuses feel pain when aborted at 20 weeks’ gestation, that abortion causes breast cancer, and that abortion leads to increased rates of suicide among women.

Which is why I caution those of us who are interested in the expansion of rights against complacency when it comes to the fight for marriage equality. While the majority of Americans now support these rights, there is a growing and defiant push against it from the extreme right, and they have more than 40 years of experience in the anti-choice world to draw on. One need only look at the onslaught of clever anti-choice laws in recent years to see how determined and coordinated foes can eviscerate rights that seemed unassailable.

Battling the Bigot Label (While Fighting Equality)

One thing I’ve come to realize attending anti-marriage-equality rallies is the desire among religious right activists to feel that they are on the right side of history, fighting the good fight. That’s why organizations like the Family Research Council have tried to distance themselves from arguments that same-sex marriage would lead to a rise in man-horse marriages and instead focus on perceived harms to children. (There are still some notable exceptions, such as South Dakota state Rep. Steve Hickey [R-Sioux Falls], whose arguments are still rooted in the fear of anal sex among men.)

The main difference I’ve seen is the attempt at a kinder tone, as well as the obvious desperation not to be portrayed as backward bigots stubbornly standing on the wrong side of history.

Take the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown. He can talk until he’s blue in the face about fighting this fight in the name of protecting children and strengthening families. But at the end of the day, Brown supports breaking up families, as long as they are families he disapproves of.

Back in August 2012, the New York Times’ religious columnist Mark Oppenheimer moderated an after-dinner debate about same-sex marriage and the Bible between Brown and writer and LGBT rights activist Dan Savage in Savage’s home in Seattle. The debate sprung out of a public challenge Brown lobbed at Savage after the syndicated sex- and relationship-advice columnist delivered controversial remarks about the Bible at a journalism convention for Christian high school students. (Savage tried to make a point that some Christians use passages in the Bible to condemn the LGBT community while ignoring “bullshit in the Bible,” such as the Bible’s acceptance of slavery. According to Savage and other media accounts, about two dozen out of 2,800-plus students walked out during these remarks. Savage later apologized for calling those who walked out “pansy-assed.”)

Only an hour of the spirited debate is preserved on YouTube—Savage argues using religious beliefs to discriminate against a class of people amounts to “religious tyranny,” not religious liberty; Brown argues, in a loop, that opposite-sex marriage is “special” and “unique,” and that letting same-sex couples marry would ruin that. He doesn’t want to be labeled a bigot. Sure, Savage had the home court advantage, but he came to the table more prepared than Brown, who kept making Savage’s points for him. For example, when Oppenheimer asked why the National Organization for Marriage has never lobbied against so-called no-fault divorce, Brown replied, “Because you believe something is wrong does not mean you make it illegal.”

The debate should have ended there.

Naturally, we didn’t see what happened after the cameras shuttered. As Savage recounts in his 2013 book American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights: On Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, the back-and-forth continued for at least a couple more hours. Another bottle of wine was opened, the camera crew packed up and left, but Oppenheimer, Savage, and Brown remained at the dinner table arguing. According to Savage’s version of what happened, his husband, Terry Miller, was pissed that Savage invited Brown into their home without asking.

And as the debate lingered on, rage built up inside of Miller until, suddenly, he snapped at Brown.

“Do you think our son should be taken away from us?” Miller asked, referring to the couple’s teenage son, D.J., whom they adopted at birth.

As Savage tells it, Brown “made an effort to look pained” at the question and then responded, “You shouldn’t ask me a question when you know you won’t like the answer.”

To which Miller retorted, “Get the fuck out of my house.”

The following summer found Brown in Russia endorsing the country’s recent proliferation of extreme anti-LGBT laws, which began with a law that criminalizes advocacy for LGBT rights and escalated to a proposal to rip children from the homes of their existing same-sex parents (the latter proposal failed). Brown’s visit timed with a debate in Russia’s parliament over a proposed law—which eventually passed—to ban the adoption of Russian children to same-sex couples in other countries.

At the time, Brown told a Russian TV interviewer, “Right now you’re having the fight about adoption, but the adoption issue is indivisible from the marriage issue. If you don’t defend your values now, I’m afraid we’re going to see very negative developments all over the world,” according to the liberal People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch.

In the days, months, even years that remain before marriage equality in the United States is realized, activists against same-sex marriage will continue their attacks. And if the abortion fight is any indication, these attacks likely won’t cease after U.S. same-sex couples are offered full marriage benefits. Thus, five, ten years down the road, when religious right activists are still lobbying state lawmakers to create conscience clauses for people who disagree with marriage equality or trying to regulate same-sex marriages and adoptions, it would behoove us to remember their unveiled disdain for LGBT families.

Despite their protests, perhaps the creators of the Manhattan Declaration manifesto and its 545,000-plus signers will wind up on the other side of history, the side that will be downplayed decades down the road, along with slavery, segregation, Japanese internment camps, the genocide of Native Americans, (ongoing) racial and sexual discrimination, and other shameful moments in the United States’ history. But, if the American public allows it, the narrative marriage-equality foes are weaving could slow their crossover for a few years yet.

Until then, they will keep scoffing at the term “inevitable” and making light of the expansion of civil rights they are trying to curtail.

“I’m happy to see all of my friends from the other side of history,” joked Manhattan Declaration Executive Director Eric Teetsel that Friday night as he greeted conference-goers.

The audience laughed.