By Stephen Richer
Non-news news flash: Gay marriage is on the move. The recent rulings against gay marriage bans in Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Utah, should warn social conservatives that time is running. They might not have the luxury of waiting until 2020 (when Nate Silver predicts almost all states will favor gay marriage); they might not have the luxury of forcing pro-equality forces to slowly build super-majorities to overturn constitutional amendments. Tick tock; tick tock.
Social conservatives should grab what they can while public opinion is still slightly ambiguous on gay marriage. The “goodie” that I would like to see social conservatives reach for is religious exemptions from gay marriage. And beyond protecting big organized religions (this has already been achieved in most states with gay marriage). They should fight for the protection of Elaine Huguenin and her secular-business-owner kindred spirits who would rather not have anything to do with gay weddings.
This goal might get more traction with the public. Rasmussen Reports study found that “85% Think Christian Photographer Has Right to Turn Down Same-Sex Wedding Job.” The only other poll I’ve found on the subject is from Third Way/Human Rights Campaign. The results portray a country that is very anti discrimination (yay!), even when religion is involved. But to the extent that discrimination might be OK, it’s in situations such as Elane Photography. “57% of Americans believe that a business providing services like flowers or food for a gay couple’s wedding is simply fulfilling a contract for services, not showing a public endorsement of that marriage.”
According to Professor Douglas Laycock, a titan among religious liberties law professors, “Somebody has to credibly say, ‘Give us a real religious liberty provision and we’ll withdraw our opposition.'” (Christianity Today). This strategy hasn’t caught on with the social conservatives. Instead, most social conservatives either 1) think the only war to focus on is that of stopping gay marriage or 2) think that the war against gay marriage and the battle for religious exemptions can be fought simultaneously. Example:
“It’s not an either-or,” said Dalton, whose team focuses on marriage and family issues, including the Tulsa County clerk who is a defendant in the Oklahoma case. “We will continue to advocate for marriage between one man and one woman as the building block of society. But in cases where a state has chosen to redefine its marriage laws, we support the active inclusion of robust religious liberty protections in pending legislation.” Christianity Today.
The problem with strategy #2 (strategy #1 is a nonstarter) is that the political left will be less willing to deal with groups that continue to spout anti-equality rhetoric and offer no flexibility on bringing gay marriage to the table faster. And yes, coalitions must be built. So far, despite Dalton’s quote above, it VERY MUCH appears to be an “either-or” situation. NO (0) states have religious exemptions for people like Elaine Huguenin.
A number of academics are championing this fight (Douglas Laycock, Robin Fretwell Wilson, Thomas Berg). But — perhaps amusingly — the only religious/tried-and-true-social-group that seems to have caught on is the LDS (Mormon) Church. Yes, the same Church that supplied of 80% to 90% of the anti-equality Proposition 8 volunteers.
More and more of the Mormon Church’s rhetoric signals a repositioning of its chips away from fighting gay marriage as the coming of the apocalypse (although the Church still ardently defines marriage as between a man and a woman) and toward the scramble for religious exemptions. This article from The Salt Lake Tribune notes that Mormons in Hawaii weren’t explicitly told to vote against gay marriage, but they were asked to push for religious exemptions:
Whether Mormons favor or oppose the potential change, the letter said, they should push for “a strong exemption for people and organizations of faith” that would protect religious groups “from being required to support or perform same-sex marriages or from having to host same-sex marriages or celebrations in their facilities; and protect individuals and small businesses from being required to assist in promoting or celebrating same-sex marriages.”
And this Mother Jones article says that Mormon Church has flat out “Abandoned Its Crusade Against Gay Marriage” and started fighting for religious liberties instead.
Of course, all of this should be tempered by the fact that many prominent Mormons are fighting to keep gay marriage (with religious exemptions or without) out of Utah.
But still, I think the Mormons have the right idea on this subject (and others), and I think it’s fast becoming time for other social conservative and religious groups to join this mentality and get something out of the gay marriage debate. Otherwise they will soon be holding an empty bag.
(I will write next about why religious exemptions are something we should all want).