Gay marriage will be a federally protected institution and a guaranteed right in America within my lifetime. Anyone under the age of 30 can make the same statement with certainty. I will not be so daring as to predict exactly what year this will be a reality, but I invite you to place your bets.
As the Supreme Court hears oral arguments today on issues related to marriage equality and the application of various laws to homosexual couples, it remains unclear what the nine justices will rule in June. They could declare marriage is a fundamental right that can not be denied without due process or narrowly guarantee marriage equality in California, home to more than 12% of all Americans. They could just as easily declare that states have the right to withhold marriage licenses from those seeking to wed a member of the same gender.
Whether gay marriage gets national, legal recognition in June or in 2020, its acceptance into American society is inevitable.
Today, nearly 50 million Americans live in a state where gay marriage is legal. If California joins those ranks in June and Illinois passes pending gay marriage legislation, that number will double. By the end of the year, one third of the country’s people may live in a state that recognizes legal gay marriages.
Public opinion is firmly in favor of allowing anyone to marry whomever they want regardless of gender, as long as it is monogamous. National political parties are beginning to adjust to this new reality and the pressure from the political donor class and business community is growing. Some politicians that casually oppose gay marriage on religious or personal grounds are finding it harder to raise money and garner significant attention, rendering their campaigns increasingly irrelevant.
In many ways, the Republican Party would be better off if the Supreme Court broadly rules that bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional and must be struck down. Fervent religious conservatives can rail against the court and scream in public for political cover. Uneasy moderates can hide their approval behind feigned public press conferences expressing outrage at the court’s social meddling. Most of the smart Republicans will be silent and let the moment play out without them.
No matter what the various GOP factions did, the debate would be brought to a close, striking it from the front page of political handbooks.
On the other hand, if the court allows the marriage equality melodrama to continue in state politics, Democrats stand to benefit.
Thirty-eight states have constitutional provisions that explicitly define marriage as between one man and one woman and 32 of those explicitly prohibit same sex unions of any kind. With public polling moving in many of those states toward marriage equality, Democrats will seize the moment to publicly propose gay marriage bills. Many Republicans will be lured into expressing public knee jerk reactions that will allow Democrats to caste the party as cold, uncaring, bigoted and out of touch with the majority of voters. The political damage may be contained to a few states, but those happen to be Presidential swing states where vast numbers of Americans live.
Further, the states where gay marriage will still be prohibited will mostly be dark red states where Republicans will have to exclusively own the policy, without being able to share any blame with Democrats.
The public relations optics would be horrendous.
Due to the internal and external pressures on the party, the opposition to gay marriage will fade over time, faster in some places than others. However, without a Supreme Court ruling, the process will take longer and the political damage will be greater.
No matter how we get there, gay marriage will become as much a part of American life as women voting, black and white couples getting married or any other historical taboo that is now barely mentioned in America.
History instructs us that very little about everyday American life will change for the majority group (heterosexuals in this example), and it will improve for discriminated group (homosexuals).
However, once gay marriage is nationally recognized, there is one controversial consequence that will probably play out. Religious conservatives who fervently opposed gay marriage fear what will happen to them when the homosexual community that they fought gain their freedom and political influence.
In civil wars fought all over the world, there is an inertia for minority groups to seek vengeance against their former majority enemies when they finally win battles. In the process of fighting against religious groups to gain legal equality, gay politicians and political action committees have raised millions of dollars, elected dozens of candidates to office and garnered significant public influence. Once the mission to win equal rights is complete, where do you think those groups will turn their time, money, power and attention?
Will they seek reprisals against the religious groups that opposed them for decades? The inertia and momentum will be there to try it.
Churches, private religious charities and religious institutions have long enjoyed preferential tax treatment and numerous regulatory exemptions. Those may be in jeopardy if gay rights groups target them for retribution through legal means.
America’s traditional separation of church and state is based on protecting religious institutions from government meddling as long as those religious groups don’t go out of their way to influence government to belittle other religions or non-believers. Gay rights advocates believe Christian groups partially broke their end of that bargain, and thus opened the door to losing their preferential government treatment on taxes and regulations. These preferential government relationships make up an important part of church finances and weakening them will fundamentally threaten the existence of certain groups.
What is now a conflict about marriage equality may rapidly develop into a conflict about organized religion’s role in American government and society.
The day after gay marriage is nationally recognized will go unnoticed by many, but it may mark the beginning of a epic, multi-generation conflict between religious and secular society in the halls of government.
You think the gay marriage debate was ugly? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
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