The rise and fall of the religious right’s fight

In 1990, three same-sex couples sued the state of Hawaii for the right to marry. They were not the first to do so; all others had lost their cases. These Hawaiian couples brought this court case without much support from national lesbian and gay movement. Just 25 years ago, the biggest lesbian and gay movement groups did not prioritize marriage rights in their long list of issues in the fight for LGBTQ equality. In the early 1990s, the lesbian and gay movement had a lot of other things to worry about.

The anti-gay wing of the religious right seemed unstoppable. In 1992, religious right groups had fielded statewide ballot initiatives in Oregon and Colorado that tried to deny equal rights to lesbian and gay people, followed by Idaho and Maine in 1994. They ran a national campaign urging “No Special Rights” for lesbian and gay people, a serious threat to the equal rights frame that the lesbian and gay movement had worked for decades to promote. In 1993, when Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples was a form of gender discrimination, the religious right saw an opportunity to mobilize their constituents around this new threat to the “sanctity” of marriage.

The religious right and the Republican Party were closely linked at this time, and as the GOP prepared for its 1996 presidential election, they brought a great deal of attention to the “gay agenda.” With the national news media reporting every word, Republican candidates claimed that same-sex marriage was an urgent threat to the sacred institution of marriage. Senator Bob Dole refused to take a donation from the Log Cabin Republicans, while his biggest opponent in the primaries, Pat Buchanan, spewed anti-gay vitriol on a regular basis, referring to gay men as “sodomites” and claiming that AIDS was “nature’s retribution” for immoral sexual behaviour.

To Republican strategists and religious right activists, same-sex marriage seemed like the perfect issue around which to rally their base and energize right-wing voters. In the mid-1990s, 75% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, and there was not a single state with majority support for marriage equality. Attitudes toward homosexuality were also very negative. As late as 1991, 70% of Americans thought that sex between two adults of the same sex was wrong, a figure that had not changed much since 1973. Alongside a massive grassroots effort in 1996, Republicans passed, and President Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), defining marriage as the legal union between one man and one woman. Dozens of states passed similar laws.

However, the United States was on the precipice of a massive opinion shift. As presidential candidates campaigned on the sanctity of marriage and religious right activists broadcast their concerns on mass news media, a groundswell of support for same-sex marriage began. Lesbian and gay movement organizations prioritized this issue, and many marriage equality activists were mobilized. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004. Early same-sex weddings were covered by national news media, often in a way that humanized the couples and focused on their love and relationships.

By 2012, a majority of Americans supported marriage equality for same-sex couples. In light of this dramatic opinion shift, religious right activists began to seek more distance from this issue, now a divisive one both politically and within their churches. While most religious right groups retained their stance against same-sex marriage, they deprioritized this issue and diverted their energies elsewhere. One leading antigay activist, David Blankenhorn, made a big splash among right-wing activists when he issued a statement that he had changed his mind on same-sex marriage. This issue was falling off of the religious right’s agenda.

The strong Republican stance against same-sex marriage also began to dissolve in light of these changing opinions. In 2013, a number of prominent Republicans signed an amicus brief in support of same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court case challenging California’s anti-gay law. This marked a significant divide in the Republican Party, which had been walking in lock step on this issue for decades. Written in 2012, the GOP platform still calls for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriage, but the political momentum is not on their side. After this historic Supreme Court ruling, and with support for lesbian and gay rights growing, right-wing activists will have to find a different issue to campaign on.

Tina Fetner is an associate professor of sociology at McMaster University. She is the author of, How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism Follow her on Twitter @fetner, and occasionally on the scatterplot blog.

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