Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Find a New Fight

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How traditionalists are adjusting to a country where their views are increasingly in the minority

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Marriage equality supporters were triumphant after last week's election. Same-sex marriage ballot initiatives won not once, not twice, but three times—in Maryland, Maine, and Washington State. A measure to outlaw gay marriage was struck down in Minnesota. This was the first time the electorate of any state voted same-sex marriage into law, and the first time voters rejected an attempt to legally define marriage as between one man and one woman. With this historic Election Day sweep, it seemed clear that Americans had finally embraced gay marriage, and that its opponents should give up.

Mother Jones's Adam Serwer captured the feelings of many when he wrote:

this is the beginning of the end for the anti-marriage equality movement. They long ago began to lose in the courts and state legislatures. Now they have begun losing at the polls. This battle may go on for years, but there is no longer any doubt about the outcome.

Serwer's probably right about the outcome of the marriage debate: More and more states will legalize gay marriage, and more and more Americans will embrace this new definition of the institution. But he's wrong about the anti-same-sex marriage movement. Marriage traditionalists—people who believe that marriage is a union of one man and one woman, full stop—will continue to exist, even if their numbers are dwindling. And in the wake of last week's election, they're struggling to figure out how to adjust to a society where their views are, seemingly suddenly, in the minority.

***

Marriage traditionalists had a range of reactions to last week's elections. On one end is Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage. "It's absurd to say the fight is over," he said in an interview. "The fight has just begun." He believes that the ballot initiatives succeeded simply because marriage-equality supporters poured so much money into the campaigns. "We could have won these fights with the right amount of money," Brown said.

On the other end is Rod Dreher, a writer at The American Conservative, who published a post late last week urging like-minded readers to take a new approach to the marriage debate. "This is not a winnable argument," he wrote.

Even before last week's ballot victories, public opinion polling seemed to confirm what Dreher is saying. The latest Pew poll, from July of this year, found that more Americans are in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to marry than opposed, 48 percent to 44 percent. The gap is even wider among the young: 63 percent of Americans born after 1981 are pro-marriage equality. Last week's ballot victories—and the ones that are likely to happen in the future—are merely legal proof of a shift that has already taken place in the hearts and minds of many Americans.

Whether optimistic or defeatist about the opinions of Americans as a whole, marriage traditionalists agree on one thing: Their own views on marriage are not changing. "Religious and social conservatives cannot abandon what we believe to be true," Dreher wrote. Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies for the Heritage Foundation, agreed: "Marriage is deeply linked to children's welfare and our social order," she said. "We are as committed as ever to explaining that relationship."

Brown put the same sentiments a bit more bluntly. "I believe the idea of same-sex marriage is a profoundly flawed idea," he said. "We're not going to recognize these unions as marriages, ever."

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Refusing to acknowledge same-sex marriages as marriages is not as simple as it sounds, though. As more and more states legalize gay marriage, more and more individuals and institutions will have to recognize those unions—or face lawsuits. That's why all the marriage traditionalists I spoke with pointed to religious liberty as a new focus in the way they think and talk about marriage.

"People on the pro side of the same-sex marriage debate need to guarantee people on the other side religious liberty," said Eric Metaxas, a Christian author. "They need to know that they in fact are threatening the liberty of other Americans."

Brown said that emphasizing religious freedom is a big part of NOM's campaign against gay marriage: "We point to the real instances of individuals and organizations seeing their religious liberty undermined," he said.

It sounds like a stretch—freedom, after all, is at the heart of the marriage equality movement. Same-sex couples who want to get married are seeking the freedom to make a commitment to the person they love, the freedom to have the same rights as heterosexual couples.

But marriage traditionalists say they need the freedom to continue to oppose same-sex marriage. That means continuing to allow pastors to refuse to bless same-sex marriages (an exception that already exists in nearly all marriage equality legislation). But it also means a range of other protections, from allowing religious employers not to extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples to letting wedding photographers decline to photograph same-sex weddings.

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund, which takes on religious liberty cases (but does not have an official position on gay marriage), predicts "a wave of litigation" between institutions and individuals on both sides of the issue. The new gay marriage laws, he says, are "a recipe for a lot of lawsuits."

The lawsuits have already begun. Rassbach points to a case in New Mexico where a lesbian couple sued a photography company for refusing to shoot their wedding. He also mentions a Methodist-owned events venue in New Jersey that lost its tax-exempt status after it declined to host a gay wedding and a Catholic hospital in New York that has been sued for not giving benefits to a married lesbian couple.

"The United States is, perhaps other than India, maybe, the most religiously diverse country in the world," said Rassbach. "It's a recipe for societal strife to force people to try to conform to a particular ideal."

Despite Americans' evolving views on marriage and the increasing legal recognition of marriage equality, the strife around the definition of marriage isn't going anywhere.

"Do you really think that we're going to be quiet and go away?" Brown said. "Just because the state says it's so, we're never going to accept it."

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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