In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, there was sentiment that the court’s opinion could ignite a new culture war — a Roe v. Wade for a new generation — and polarize parties (and the American electorate) for decades to come. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Winning with grace is an important first step for marriage equality advocates, who should resist the temptation to demonize fellow Americans who might not yet have had the same epiphany on marriage equality that President Barack Obama reached only three years ago and that Hillary Clinton reached a mere two years ago. Marginalizing marriage equality opponents does little to generate the healing needed on all sides to diffuse a culture war.
The marginalization of those who oppose marriage equality starts with the numbers. The population of LGBT Americans is relatively small (3.8 percent), but a public majority supports our right to marry (60 percent). Approval is even more pronounced among the millennial generation: 79 percent of Americans born in 1981 or later agree that marriage equality should be legal.
While encouraging, this strong public support for marriage equality has imbued advocates with a false sense of cultural and political authority on what remains, in many ways, a contentious issue — especially for the older generation.
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Consider religious freedom: In discussions of marriage equality, disrespect for dissenting perspectives is particularly pointed when this opposition in framed in terms of faith.
Among many on the left — and I daresay most all of the gay left — the mere utterance of the phrase “religious freedom” is considered to be a dog whistle for anti-gay policy. This association is almost certainly compounded by the lingering stigma of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was widely criticized as a deliberate effort to provide a license to discriminate.
Data confirms this negative connotation: A survey conducted in February found that 57 percent of Americans supported religious exemptions for wedding-related businesses. Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in March. By late April, approval for wedding-related exemptions had dropped to 52 percent. Analysts attribute the decline — 5 points in less than three months — to the Indiana controversy. Even after Indiana’s RFRA debacle, a majority still supports reasonable religious accommodations.
Following the Obergefell decision, some Republicans expressed concerns that nationwide marriage equality threatens the free exercise of religious freedom — even that of priests, ministers, rabbis and imams. This is largely histrionics, but it does little to assuage Chicken Little-types when breathless titles like, “Now’s the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions” are broadcast by Time Magazine. If the fight for marriage equality was never a war on religion, some advocates clearly never got the memo.
There are a number of questions precipitated by the Supreme Court decision that will need to be answered. The Obama administration’s Solicitor General, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., even admitted as much during the Obergefell hearing. Navigating the legal complexities of this new terrain on issues such as tax exemptions for religious schools or the refusal to provide service in certain businesses will inevitably impact the lawful scope of religious freedom.
As future legislative and legal battles loom, some faithful conservatives worry their freedoms are vulnerable. And the reaction from liberal marriage equality advocates is aggravating, rather than alleviating, these anxieties.
The left continues to dismiss fears about religious freedom as imagined or insincere while simultaneously branding people of faith who publicly express apprehension of nationwide marriage equality as out-of-touch bigots.
It’s no wonder some religious conservatives are warning that proponents of so-called traditional marriage feel condemned to live as cultural exiles in the aftermath of Obergefell.
Case-in-point: A Pennsylvania newspaper announced last week that it would no longer accept opinion pieces that argue against same-sex marriage. Submission guidelines were later updated to clarify that dissenting opinions will be “strictly limit(ed)” rather than categorically banned.
The ongoing marginalization and vilification of certain religious conservatives ultimately brings the evolution of marriage equality to an ironic full-circle.
Not so long ago, gay and lesbian men and women — as well as our straight allies — were on the losing end of the public debate on marriage equality. At that time, I hoped those who disagreed with my personal view would do so humbly, empathetically and with respect. Most did, and these compassionate reactions facilitated productive, meaningful dialogue and mutual understanding.
It’s time to return the favor.
Gregory T. Angelo is the national executive director of Log Cabin Republicans.
©2015 The Dallas Morning News