Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz refuses to let his party stop talking about gay marriage. Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore
The American religious right has a lot of reasons to feel down these days. Every election year, for more than a decade, conservative Christian activists have come out from their megachurches and Appalachian tent revivals and strip-mall Bible studies to wage a culture war battle over the definition of marriage. They’ve spent millions of dollars, diligently called their neighbors, and knocked on doors, and on election days they loaded up their church vans to vote against gay marriage. And for a long time, they were winning: Between 1998 and 2012, voters in 30 states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, often by overwhelming margins.
Then, last Monday, all of that work was washed away, when the Supreme Court, unceremoniously and without explanation, declined to review lower-court rulings overturning gay-marriage bans in five states. The surprise decision, buried in an 81-page list of cases the court rejected, set off a gay-rights earthquake: By the end of the week, following the Ninth Circuit court’s decision Tuesday to strike down gay-marriage bans in Nevada and Idaho, gay marriage was effectively legal in 35 states.
It seems all but inevitable that the rest of the country will follow. While the Supreme Court could eventually take up the issue, it’s hard to imagine that the justices would turn back now. Politically, too, the issue has faded. According to recent polls, a majority of Americans—including 61 percent of Republicans between the ages of 18 and 29—now support gay marriage. In light of these numbers, most Republicans seem eager to drop the subject, fearing that the issue will have diminishing returns at the ballot box.
Unsurprisingly, religious conservatives don’t see it this way. They plan on fighting this culture war to the bitter end. Evangelical leaders I spoke to last week were already plotting new strategies to stem the tide of gay rights. And while their plans are still vague—most of them seemed to still be getting over the shock—their determination appears to guarantee a fiery debate over marriage and religious liberties as the GOP (Republican) 2016 presidential primaries ramp up. So with that, here’s a look at what to expect from the Christian Right:
ELECT MORE CHRISTIANS
In the days since Monday’s decision, conservative groups have sprung into action, using the court’s decision to mobilize evangelical voters for the midterm elections and double down on electing Republican candidates who would continue to fight gay marriage.
“This continues to be an issue that drives voters,” said Ralph Reed, a veteran evangelical strategist who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “We’ve got it on every digital ad, on every voter guide… We’ve visited 137,000 churches in 27 states, and at each one, we’re telling them to care about gay marriage, to look at where the candidates stand on this issue.”
For Republican candidates—including (and perhaps especially) those running for president in 2016—“there will be no avoiding this issue,” he said.
Like most of the conservative leaders I spoke to, Reed is still not sure what kind of legislative or political avenues the Christian right will pursue to get around the federal marriage ruling. But he predicted that the lower court decisions to overturn state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage would spark a backlash among conservatives that would be “the marriage equivalent of the pro-life movement.”
“People voted on this issue—it is state constitutions that are being struck down,” Reed said. “I don’t think there is any way that you can redefine marriage for all 50 states without facing backlash.”
In some ways, this makes sense. In the last decade, the religious right has built up substantial amount of influence in the GOP due in large part to its ability to turn out evangelicals to cast ballots in favor of state ballot initiatives banning gay marriage—efforts that, more often than not, have helped Republicans get elected. Even as public support for gay rights grew, conservatives consistently showed up to vote on the marriage issue.
But the politics of gay rights are not what they were a decade ago, when George W. Bush’s reelection campaign used marriage as a wedge issue to help win in key swing states where constitutional same-sex marriage bans were on the ballot.
“We're done with this issue,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson. “It doesn’t matter how you feel about the issue— this wasn't just a legal fight, it was a cultural fight and the cultural fight is in the rearview mirror.”
“There are parts of this coalition—people who have basically said they are going to make this part of the 2016 equation—making promises to the electorate that they can’t keep,” he added. “I advise [candidates] to fight on issues where we can win—issues where we don’t alienate enormous numbers of people, and give Democrats an excuse to scare voters.
“Math is a bitch. This issue is going to have diminishing returns going into 2014.”
In a sign of the fundamental divides in the GOP, religious conservatives have actually made the opposite argument, warning that the party will lose elections if it abandons its conservative base by giving up on the marriage fight.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an evangelical favorite who seems to be genuinely rattled by the Supreme Court’s gay marriage dodge, laid out the argument in an interview on the American Family Association’s radio show Thursday, threatening to leave the Republican Party if its leaders didn’t start taking a hard line on gay marriage rights.
“I am utterly exasperated with Republicans and the so-called leadership of the Republicans who have abdicated on this issue when, if they continue this direction they guarantee they’re gonna lose every election in the future,” he said. “Guarantee it.”
Rather than retreat, Huckabee, who ran for president in 2008 and is perennially “considering” a second campaign, has called for conservative governors to simply ignore the court rulings and continue enforcing their state gay marriage bans.
“It is shocking that many elected officials, attorneys, and judges think that a court ruling is the 'final word.' It most certainly is not,” Huckabee said in a statement. He added: “The courts can't make law. They can interpret it and even rule that a law is unconstitutional, but they have no power to create it or enforce it.”
Clearly, disregarding federal court rulings on gay marriage is a recipe for constitutional crisis (although Republicans in South Carolina and Kansas flirted with the idea last week). It’s easy to see this ending with the National Guard officiating mass gay weddings in occupied state rotundas and city halls. But social conservatives are more optimistic: They think that eventually, everyone would just ignore the court’s ruling.
“I think that history will ultimately look at this like the Dred Scott decision,” said Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver, a leading Christian legal theorist. He was referring to the 1856 Supreme Court ruling that found black people could never be US citizens, which justified slavery in the South and indirectly caused the Civil War.
Staver said he believes that, as with the Scott case, everyone will eventually disregard the court’s move on gay marriage. “I think this is going to come down to whether people take these decisions seriously,” he said. “If people lose confidence in the courts, the courts lose their power.”
A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite who’s been very obvious about his 2016 presidential ambitions, has posed a slightly less aggressive strategy. While other GOP members of Congress tried to ignore the gay marriage tumult last week, Cruz issued a scathing statement criticizing the Supreme Court’s move and promising to introduce an amendment to the US Constitution that would prevent the government, including federal courts, from meddling with state marriage laws.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to let rulings by lower court judges stand that redefine marriage is both tragic and indefensible,” he said. “This is judicial activism at its worst. The Constitution entrusts state legislatures, elected by the People, to define marriage consistent with the values and mores of their citizens.”
IMPEACH FEDERAL JUDGES
For evangelical activists, the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage also underscored conservative frustration with judges who overturn laws passed by voters at the state level.
David Lane, a California-based operative who leads the evangelical American Renewal Project, said his group is planning to target judges who have ruled in favor of gay marriage, including those who issued the lower court rulings upheld by the Supreme Court on Monday.
“I want a fight over this,” he said. “I think the way to address it is to start removing these unelectable and unaccountable judges who are doing this to our country. They have no right to rule a free people. What they’re doing, it’s judicial anarchy.”
Lane added that evangelical activists are still figuring out how best to accomplish this—federal judges are appointed for life, and only 15 have ever been impeached—but said he is looking for a member of the House of Representatives to introduce an impeachment bill.
“The way we address this is we start removing unelected and unaccountable judges,” he said. “And then we remove the members of Congress who don’t vote to impeach them.”
FIND ANOTHER BATTLE TO FIGHT
Despite the outrage over the gay marriage rulings, many conservatives have, practically speaking at least, moved on, seizing on religious freedom as the next battleground in the culture wars and directing their energy toward passing legislation that would allow people to refuse services to gay people on religious grounds.
In Wisconsin, which fell under last week’s Supreme Court decision, opponents of gay marriage said that they have focused on warning people that, thanks to the decision, they may soon be forced to arrange bouquets for lesbian brides and bake cakes topped with two tiny grooms.
“The legal options [to fight gay marriage] are at this point exhausted for Wisconsin,” said Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action. But, she added, “we've got bakers, we've got florists, we've got wedding venues—people where their individuals consciences are at odds with this quote-unquote ‘new right.’ So we’re working with businesses and churches, informing them that they could find themselves in, shall we say, interesting positions if they are challenged on their institutional beliefs on traditional marriage.”
In any state, churches, synagogues, and other places of worship are obviously free to perform marriages for whomever they choose. But’s it’s still not clear whether other religiously affiliated groups—such as schools, charities, and businesses—will have to accommodate same-sex weddings, particularly in the 29 states where gay people aren’t covered by anti-discrimination laws.
Lawmakers in Arizona and Kansas have already considered pieces of legislation that would let individuals and businesses deny services on religious grounds. Neither bill passed, but conservative activists and legal experts expect that other state legislatures will take up the issue in the wake of the federal court rulings on gay marriage. And they point to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby last year, which ruled that for-profit companies have the right to exercise religion, as evidence that, on this issue at least, the justices may come down on their side.
“We are very aware that individual conscience rights and religious freedoms are very much in jeopardy,” said Appling. “We’re going to be very aggressive in taking that message all over the state—to elected officials, to churches, to the citizens—to make sure that we give people the best legal protection for their religious freedoms.”
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