Republican lawmakers stand athwart marriage equality at their peril

Craig Stowell always suspected his brother might be gay, and he made sure to let his brother know he would love him no matter what if his brother ever came out to the family. It was the right thing to do. But Stowell didn’t become involved in political fights for marriage equality until Republicans in the New Hampshire legislature introduced HB 437 in 2011 to repeal the Granite State’s 2010 law conferring the same state protections on same-sex marriages that traditional marriages enjoy. (The legislature had tried previously — and failed — to repeal New Hampshire’s 2006 law protecting civil unions between gay couples.) Gay marriage proponents defeated HB 437 in 2012.

“When I look at my brother,” the New Hampshire Republican politico and Iraq War veteran told me over the phone, “I can’t help but want him to have the same rights I have.” As support for marriage equality continues to grow across the country, Republican lawmakers should embrace the opportunity to become leaders on the issue.

Since defeating HB 437 in New Hampshire, Stowell has become a young Republican leader in the fight to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 federal law that recognizes only marriages between one man and one woman in the U.S., codifies the denial of benefits to gay couples that many straight couples enjoy, and makes a mockery of the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause by allowing states to not recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Stowell and his wife appeared in a Respect for Marriage Coalition ad last week, just after the group released a pro-gay marriage ad featuring prominent Republicans like former First Lady Laura Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney (whose daughter is a lesbian), and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Today Stowell sits on the leadership committee of Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, one of the major partners of the Respect for Marriage Coalition.

Some Republican lawmakers cling to the idea that supporting marriage equality, even when they personally support the cause, will kill their political careers, citing figures from studies like a recent AP examination of Republican legislators who bucked the party line on marriage. Less than half of those who voted to support same-sex marriage still remain in office, the study ominously proclaims, ignoring, as United Liberty editor Jason Pye noted in a recent editorial in The Hill, that some retired, some lost general election contests to Democratic opponents, and some turned out to like taxes and spending a little more than they told prospective voters they did on the campaign trail.

On the contrary, Pye noted, opposition to same-sex marriage has declined by 17 percentage points since 2004 alone, dropping from 60% against to 43% against. Gallup reported shortly after last year’s election that 53% of the country now favors marriage equality, which suggests that Republicans are safer today than they ever have been to cast a vote supporting gay marriage. On the Republican side in particular, this has been a function of effective grassroots activism — not of Washington’s squishy Republican establishment — people knocking on doors, calling their neighbors, and giving money to pro-equality groups. (It’s worth noting, too, that only 11% of Republican “political insiders” explicitly opposed marriage equality in a recent National Journal poll.)