Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Find a New Fight

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.

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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."

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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