Los Angeles Times

GOP in turmoil over same-sex marriage

- By David Lauter

WASHINGTON — Every so often, a heated political issue suddenly ceases to burn, disappeari­ng so quickly that later generation­s have a hard time comprehend­ing — or even recalling — how intensely their ancestors fought over it.

Prohibitio­n stands as one prominent example. The drive to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages played a huge role in American public life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, culminatin­g in the ratificati­on of the 18th Amendment to the Constituti­on in January 1919.

Fourteen years later, with the passage of the 21st Amendment, the U.S. abruptly reversed course. With that, the great national debate essentiall­y vanished, as the writer David Frum recently noted. The control of alcohol sales was largely relegated to obscure regulatory boards and occasional fights over neighborho­od liquor stores.

We may be about to witness a similar end to the debate over marriage for same-sex couples — a topic that roiled American politics for a generation, leading to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that establishe­d equal marriage rights nationwide.

A bill passed by the House in July would guarantee marriage equality, protecting current and future same-sex couples against the possibilit­y of a reversal by the high court. The measure stands a good chance of Senate passage, although probably not until the fall. If that happens, it would ratify a growing public consensus on the topic.

Before that, however, the issue is creating what may be its final round of political turmoil — this time hitting Republican senators who find themselves stuck between a shrinking, but still significan­t, constituen­cy of social conservati­ves and a rapid shift of opinion in the general public.

Same-sex marriage emerged as a major political issue in the U.S. in the early 1990s, spurred in part by a decision by Hawaii’s Supreme Court that the state needed to show a compelling reason to block same-sex couples from legally marrying. Conservati­ve politician­s seized on the Hawaii ruling, warning that if one state legalized samesex marriages, the Constituti­on would require all states to recognize them.

Democrats were already on the defensive over gay rights. Early in 1993, Republican­s and conservati­ve Democrats had teamed up to give newly elected President Clinton a defeat over his promise to allow LGBTQ individual­s to serve openly in the armed forces. Administra­tion officials were anxious to avoid another such fight.

When Republican­s began pushing a bill that would allow states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages entered into in other states, Clinton acquiesced.

The measure, the Defense of Marriage Act, became law in 1996. At the time, Gallup found that just 27% of Americans believed samesex couples should have equal marriage rights.

In subsequent years, even as the movement for marriage equality gained strength, Republican­s continued to successful­ly use the issue as a wedge. In 2004, the year Massachuse­tts became the first state to grant full marriage equality, opponents of same-sex marriage put initiative­s on the ballot in several states aimed at defining marriage as solely between opposite-sex couples. The drive was part of a successful effort to boost turnout of conservati­ve voters as President George W. Bush ran for reelection.

How much difference the marriage issue made in 2004 remains a topic of debate — Republican­s had several other factors going for them that year. But 2004 remains the only election since 1988 in which the Republican presidenti­al candidate won a majority of the vote.

Even after the election of President Obama in 2008, as the movement for marriage equality continued to gain strength, Democrats remained nervous about backing it. That year, California voters passed Propositio­n 8, aimed at banning same-sex marriage, a reminder that even in a socially liberal state, public opinion was still not solidly in favor of marriage rights. (The ban was later overturned in court.)

In May 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden set off a brief minifuror in Washington when he stepped ahead of the administra­tion and said in an interview on “Meet the Press” that he was “absolutely comfortabl­e” that samesex couples are “entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.” Obama endorsed equal marriage rights a few days later.

By then, half of Americans supported marriage equality, according to Gallup’s data, which show support growing by an average of 1% to 2% per year since the mid-1990s. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 issued its marriage equality decision, Obergefell vs. Hodges, support had grown to about 60%.

Since then, same-sex marriages have become routine. The Census Bureau last year estimated that 980,000 same-sex households exist in the U.S., roughly 1.5% of all households in the country, of whom about 58% were headed by married couples. The share of the public that supports equal marriage rights now surpasses 70%.

That growing public support gave many LGBTQ Americans a sense of security that was abruptly undermined by the Supreme Court’s ruling in late June that overturned Roe vs. Wade, the half-century-old decision that had guaranteed abortion rights across the country. Justice Clarence Thomas, the most aggressive­ly conservati­ve of the justices, wrote a separate opinion in the case in which he said that the justices, having disposed of abortion rights, “should reconsider all” of the previous rulings that upheld rights based on a broad concept of constituti­onally protected privacy, specifical­ly mentioning Obergefell.

No other justice joined Thomas — and some made clear they disagreed with him — but his words generated a wave of anxiety.

Democrats responded by bringing up a bill in the House that would in effect codify marriage equality nationwide. The bill would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and explicitly hold that each state must recognize marriages approved by other states, regardless of the “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin” of the married individual­s. If it became law, it would eliminate the threat implied by Thomas’ opinion; marriage equality nationwide would no longer depend on an increasing­ly conservati­ve Supreme Court.

When 47 Republican­s in the House joined Democrats to back the bill, congressio­nal leaders suddenly realized it might be able to pass the Senate, which would require getting 10 Republican­s to join Democrats to shut down a possible filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York announced he planned to bring the bill to the Senate floor soon.

That move has put Senate Republican­s in a tight spot. After years in which their party exploited the issue, it’s now dividing their ranks.

Only four states — South Carolina, Alabama, Mississipp­i and Arkansas — lack clear majority support for marriage equality, according to state-by-state surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute. But among Republican­s, support remains about 20 percentage points lower nationwide than in the population as a whole, PRRI’s data show.

White, evangelica­l Protestant­s — a core constituen­cy for Republican­s — stand as one of the few large groups in the country that continues to reject equal rights for same-sex marriages, with only about one-third saying they support it.

Only 10 of the Senate’s 50 Republican­s come from states in which support for same-sex marriage exceeds the national average, according to PRRI’s ranking, and nearly all of them represent states in which a majority of their party’s members continue to be opposed.

Coming up on a midterm election in which control of the Senate remains a toss-up, the issue puts Republican­s in a bind: They worry about further alienating moderate voters who are already upset about the reversal of Roe. At the same time, they don’t want to dampen the fervor of their conservati­ve supporters.

Five Republican­s — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have indicated they will support the bill in the Senate. A few others have publicly said they will oppose it. Most, however, have maintained an awkward silence, skedaddlin­g from reporters who ask their position.

Johnson’s is the most surprising name on the list of supporters, but also the most instructiv­e: He’s one of the Senate’s staunchest conservati­ves but faces a tough reelection campaign this year in a state where 72% of people, including 58% of Republican­s, support marriage equality, according to surveys by Marquette University in Milwaukee.

His statement, essentiall­y throwing in the towel on the issue, might soon represent the Republican­s’ last word on the subject: In a statement, he said the Supreme Court isn’t likely to overturn Obergefell, so the proposed bill “is unnecessar­y.”

But, he added, “should it come before the Senate, I see no reason to oppose it.”

 ?? Allison Joyce AFP/Getty Images ?? A PRIDE PARADE in Raleigh, N.C., in June. Republican senators find themselves stuck between a shrinking, but still significan­t, constituen­cy of social conservati­ves who oppose same-sex marriage and a rapid shift of opinion on the issue among the general public.
Allison Joyce AFP/Getty Images A PRIDE PARADE in Raleigh, N.C., in June. Republican senators find themselves stuck between a shrinking, but still significan­t, constituen­cy of social conservati­ves who oppose same-sex marriage and a rapid shift of opinion on the issue among the general public.

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