WASHINGTON, October 25, 2014 – The Supreme Court’s decision this month not to review circuit court rulings on same-sex marriage was a surprise to many Court observers, even if the result of that decision was not. Another surprise is that same-sex marriage has nearly vanished as a topic in the looming midterm elections.
Just a few years ago, SSM was a topic guaranteed to bring the GOP base to the polls. In 2004, 11 of 11 states that had measures to ban SSM on the ballot passed them. Three bans passed in 2008, bringing to total number of states banning SSM to 30. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both opposed legalizing SSM that year; whether they did so out of conviction or political expedience, opposition to SSM was clearly the safer position that year.
What passed in the states went down with surprising quickness in the courts. The Supreme Court ruled twice last year against laws preventing same-sex marriage, and it was expected that the Court would continue to expand marriage rights. However, the Court had signaled that it would probably return to the issue after it stayed the ruling that set aside Utah’s gay marriage ban, among others. Its decision not to decide effectively rejected appeals from Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin to prevent same-sex marriage.
The next day, the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco struck down bans in Idaho and Nevada.
If that was a surprise, so has been the relative silence from the GOP. That silence has been reinforced by the lack of enthusiasm from groups once passionate on the subject to get back into the fray now. The day before the Court’s non-decision, Dallin H. Oakes, in an address to the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the church’s general conference, said that church members should “accept unfavorable results graciously, and practice civility.” Oaks said Latter-day Saints should show goodwill toward all and reject persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief and sexual orientation.
Oakes is a member of the “Quorum of Twelve Apostles,” one of the ruling bodies of the LDS Church, and a former Utah Supreme Court justice.
Oakes’s message seems almost to capture the feelings of the GOP leadership: We may not like gay marriage, but we won’t win this, so move on. And it has done more than move on. House Speaker John Boehner has actively supported gay Republicans in two House races: Carl DeMaio in San Diego — Boehner attended a DeMaio fund raiser in San Diego — and Richard Tisei in Massachusetts.
Other Republican candidates in this election cycle have backed “gay rights,” and at least one Republican Senate candidate, Oregon’s Monica Wehby, has featured a same-sex couple in her advertising. Republican Senator Rob Portman announced his support for same-sex marriage rights in 2013.
This has not gone unopposed by conservatives. The Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage have both bitterly complained about the drift by Boehner and the National Republican Congressional Committee to be more inclusive of gays in the GOP. “Carl DeMaio, Richard Tisei and Monica Wehby are antithetical to the Republican platform,” they said in a letter addressed to Republican leaders, including John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Yet the GOP seems not to be listening, nor do many Republicans.
The GOP does not support SSM; the level of support is only at 30 percent, though that is up from 21 percent in 2001. But support shoots up to 60 percent among Republicans under 30, a fact that is of crucial importance to Republican leaders.
It’s of importance to the religious right as well. Support for SSM has risen dramatically among white, mainline Protestants, with most of them — 60 percent — expressing support. Support remains low among white evangelical Protestants, at 23 percent, but even there support has almost doubled in the last ten years. And most of that growing support has been among the young.
Conservative religious leaders face a problem on the legality of SSM from their own pews. While they cannot be expected to change their views of sin in response to shifting public opinion, they will find it easier to deal with homosexuality as a sin within their own ranks than as an appropriate subject of social policy.
Savvy politicians can understand a trend line and generational changes as well as anyone. Religious conservatives remain important to the GOP, and they are making noise on this issue. GOP leadership is not about to start actively promoting SSM or other issues important to gays across the board, but they are learning to be silent. To their critics, silence is as big a sin as an open position on the subject, but on a subject as contentious as this one has been, it is also golden.