Republican lawmakers stand athwart marriage equality at their peril

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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.)

When I asked Stowell which political figures inspired him in his fight for marriage equality, he answered with Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party’s first president, and Ronald Reagan, arguably the GOP’s most revered president. “I think President Reagan would recognize where America is on this issue, and he would step aside,” said Stowell. Lincoln’s work to end the brutal institution of human slavery, too, helped place the Republican Party on a decades-long trajectory of pre-empting their Democratic counterparts on issues of rights and freedoms.

They seem to have lost their path.

But the recent experience in New Hampshire shows what happens when Republicans who support marriage equality organize effectively: a roughly 2/3 majority in the state House opposed HB 437, including over 100 Republican legislators. That number is larger than it has been anywhere else in the nation’s history of marriage politics.

Several high-profile Republicans filed an amicus curiae brief this week in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case now before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of California’s controversial Proposition 8. Serving as co-counsel to the plaintiffs is Ted Olson, former U.S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush. In 2011, Olson joined my former Cato Institute colleagues in an excellent, short video in which they distill the constitutional case for marriage equality.

Adding to the list of amicus briefs in Hollingsworth come, for the first time in history, dozens of major corporations — including Apple, Facebook, and Morgan Stanley — who argue in their brief that supporting marriage equality is a business imperative in today’s world. The government, they argue, should protect same-sex marriages everywhere, because some employers currently cannot compete for talent with firms in other states where same-sex couples can share benefits with each other. One wonders what risk the traditionally business-friendly GOP runs in continuing to oppose marriage equality.

While some Republican proponents of marriage equality have enjoyed success in recent years, stoking support among the rest of the grassroots will continue to be a challenge. Rod Dreher’s excellent editorial in The American Conservative immediately following Election Day 2012 gives some cues about (a) why supporting marriage equality makes sense for conservatives, and (b) how socially conservative activists might approach the issue politically, in a way they can digest it.

But setting aside the moral and constitutional imperatives to end opposition to marriage equality, Republicans have everything to gain politically from embracing the new facts about the world in which we all live. House Republicans have an opportunity before them to strip their Democratic counterparts of a powerful political weapon, and finally pivot to more pressing issues like opposition to oppressive taxes and wasteful spending, the ethos of the Tea Party movement that propelled them to power in 2010.

Craig Stowell and I, among others, implore them to do so.

George Scoville is a media strategist, researcher, and writer in Springfield, Virginia. He is the editor of The Dangerous Servant and a contributor to United Liberty.

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