J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins denounces gay marriage as a group of pastors from across denominational lines gather on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 24, 2012.
Conservative religious leaders rallying outside the Capitol Thursday promised to make the preservation of marriage as a union between one man and one woman an issue in 2012 campaign.
But with traditional marriage already having been made the law in most states, and with the federal courts -- and ultimately the Supreme Court -- likely deciding the constitutionality of these laws, it's not yet clear how the leaders will persuade the conservative base to get mobilized.
At the rally outside the Capitol, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, chided Republican leaders for not focusing more on the marriage issue: “The Republicans have said they’re not going to be distracted” by the same-sex marriage issue, but instead will focus on the economy as the theme of the 2012 campaign.
“The pastors and Christians across America are saying marriage is under attack. That’s not a distraction; that should be a priority,” Perkins said.
Republicans cannot sit back and assume they will win grassroots conservatives’ support on the issue. “If the Republicans want the support that’s going to be leaving the president (due to his backing support for same-sex marriages), they have to show that there is a clear contrast between the president and them,” he added.
Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor of the Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., said President Barack Obama’s personal endorsement of same-sex marriages was merely a prelude: “Some further action will follow,” he said, not specifying what he thinks the action would be.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year that Justice Department lawyers would no longer defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, which federally defines marriages as solely between one man and one woman for purposes of awarding benefits.
Another section of the law says that states can refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states have prohibited same-sex marriages, either through state law or by amending their state constitutions.
The NAACP recently came out in support of gay marriage. The panel discusses that stance and a new Washington Post/ABC poll that has the POTUS and Mitt Romney in a statistical dead heat. Chuck Todd also joins the conversation.
NCSL’s tally doesn’t include California, Maryland, and Washington. In California, a federal appeals court has ruled that the state constitutional amendment adopted in 2008 violates the U.S. Constitution, but an appeal is pending in that case. The Maryland and Washington legislatures have passed laws allowing same-sex marriages, but voters will either ratify or reject those laws in November.
Legal challenges to DOMA are pending in two federal appeals courts and the issue seems likely to come before the Supreme Court as soon as next year. Also likely to come before the high court is the constitutionality of California’s marriage amendment, Proposition 8.
Jackson recalled the power of the marriage issue in the 2004 election: “In 2004, George Bush won a second term in office by a shift in the vote” that occurred in Ohio and Florida, due in part to conservative alarm over prospect of legalization of same-sex marriage.
Perkins said that in Ohio in 2004, it was conservative activists, and not the Republican Party establishment, who put the marriage constitutional amendment on the ballot and mobilized voters to turn out and approve it.
In 2004, one-man/one-woman marriage referenda were on the ballot in Ohio and 12 other states and all were approved by voters.
A dramatic additional motivation for voters came only a week before the 2004 election with the announcement that Chief Justice William Rehnquist had been hospitalized for thyroid cancer. Voters knew that either Bush or his Democratic opponent John Kerry would likely get to fill at least one vacancy during the four-year term beginning in January 2005.
But whether the marriage issue, or the high court vacancy issue, will play as powerful a role this year as in 2004 depends partly on whether voters think they can do something to influence the outcome.
Both Jackson and Perkins warned Thursday of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s recent statement of support for bringing a bill to repeal DOMA to the Senate floor for a vote this year.
A bill to repeal DOMA was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, but stands no chance of advancing in the House even if the Senate were to pass it.
But such a vote could benefit both conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage and the proponents of it by giving them a recorded vote to rally supporters on. Depending on the state, senators up for re-election this fall might be put in a tight spot by such a vote.
And yet such a vote might be beside the point, if the issue will be decided by the Supreme Court anyway.
“Why is DOMA important?” Perkins asked the rally. “DOMA does two things: DOMA not only defines marriage for purposes of federal law, but DOMA is also the thin line of protection for the 30 states that have enshrined the definition of marriage in their constitutions and the other dozen states that have it in their statutes.”
Without DOMA, he said, the few states that have legalized same-sex marriage “could impose their definition” on the majority of states that outlaw same-sex marriages.
Perkins also drew a parallel between the abortion issue and the marriage issue. Legalization of abortion, he said was “thrust upon the country not democratically, not through the legislative branch, but through the courts -- and after 40 years it is not resolved.”
He acknowledged that the high court could strike down DOMA and find that there is a fundamental constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. “The courts may impose a definition of marriage -- but they will never make it right and Americans will never accept it.”
Such a ruling, he said, “will make the abortion issue look minor.”