Is gay marriage really the hill the GOP wants to die on in 2023?

(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, file)

I’m having some serious flashbacks this week as I read about the renewed debate over the Respect for Marriage Act. The bill would, among other things, repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and do other things to essentially codify and enforce the legality of gay marriage at the federal level. The “among other things” aspect of that description is where the real problems are found and there are poison pills tucked away in the legislation that should definitely give some conservatives pause. But the way it’s being sold in the media leaves the public with the impression that the bill is solely about “protecting gay marriage” and the evil Republicans are trying to block the effort. At the Daily Signal, Mary Margaret Olohan identifies the twelve Republicans Senators who voted on Wednesday in favor of cloture on the bill, moving it forward to a debate and presumably a floor vote. She urges those Republicans to rethink their decision and  “take a stand against the radical legislation.”

Republicans who voted for the Respect for Marriage Act on Wednesday still have time to reverse course and take a stand against the radical legislation…

Many of these lawmakers claim that the much-discussed legislation protects religious liberty. But opponents of the bill warn that it “puts a giant target on people of faith.”

The legislation repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, obliges those “acting under color of state law” to recognize same-sex marriages, and orders the federal government to recognize marriages that are deemed valid by one or more states.

As I already suggested, if this were any sort of more mundane piece of legislation, there are provisions in it that the GOP should definitely consider blocking or defeating the bill entirely. As noted above, the bill will seek to dictate how individual states handle such questions, even going so far as to force them to recognize marriages deemed valid in other states. Even more to the point, there is no provision in the bill to prohibit the government from removing tax-exempt status of institutions based on religious beliefs about same-sex marriage (either for or against) and the bill’s Democratic sponsors have refused to consider such an amendment. There is significant overreach in the bill that goes far beyond simply codifying gay marriage.

But that’s not how this is playing out with the public thus far. Some prominent conservative voices such as Heritage Action executive director Jessica Anderson have been describing the defeat of this bill as “an opportunity to defend religious liberty and the institution of marriage.” And some Republicans in Washington have been raising the same flag.

This is all starting to look alarmingly similar to the political wildfire we experienced between 2010 and 2015. The Democrats are setting the Republicans up for a sucker punch and most of the media is joyfully abetting them in doing so. As we prepare to ease into the coming presidential primary season, the Democrats would love nothing more than a vote on a bill where they can claim that the GOP is fighting to take away the chance for gay people to get married, whether it works out that way or not. And if Republicans are not very careful in how they give voice to the portions of the bill they oppose, that’s precisely how it will be seen.

There is a disturbing parallel between this and the recent debates over abortion that followed the Dobbs decision. Rather than allowing each state to decide for itself, Democrats painted a picture of a national Republican Party that was seeking to outlaw abortion everywhere. And while it’s difficult to measure down to the last vote, the results of the midterms suggest that they were surprisingly effective in doing so in many states that might have otherwise voted more on issues of crime and the economy.

If the Democrats succeed in turning the debate next year into a straight-up referendum on gay marriage, it’s a battle they are going to win. Consistent polling in recent years (see Gallup just last month) shows that support for the rights of gay people to marry is at 70 percent or above. That’s in the same territory as the number of people who support access to abortion in the first trimester, though that support falls off a cliff for the third trimester.

I’m not trying to equate opposition to abortion to opposing gay marriage, by the way. They aren’t the same at all. With abortion, you’re talking about someone (a baby) literally dying. With gay marriage, you’re basically arguing over the guest list at a reception. But the Democrats will fly that flag high with great ferocity if given the opportunity.

Those who have been reading this site for a very long time already know that I’ve held what I believed was the small government conservative position on the gay marriage question since the fighting first grew intense. I felt (and still feel) that the best “solution” to the “gay marriage problem” was to get the government out of the marriage business entirely. Strike the word marriage from the entire tax code and remove that word from almost every law at the federal state, local, and municipal levels. (We would still need a couple of laws to prevent marriage from being used as a fig leaf to cover pedophilia or the abuse of others unable to give meaningful consent.)

I can point you back to something I wrote about many times here, including the first paragraph of this article that I published more than eight years ago. (Oh, dear God, have I really been covering this for that long? I should go lie down for a bit.) Here’s the bottom line from that piece in a nutshell:

“For the record, I don’t “support” gay marriage any more than I “support” traditional marriage. I support my marriage. The rest of you are on your own. I simply don’t feel that the government – at any level – holds claim to the power to demand a license from or charge a tax on two consenting adults for the ‘privilege’ of getting married.”

That’s basically it, for those of you who weren’t following the debate here back in the early Obama years. I don’t care who gets married because their actions don’t cause harm to my family or anyone else if both participants are consenting. I have gay friends who are married and their unions haven’t managed to destroy my own marriage which has been skipping along for going on thirty years now. You are free to disagree and I won’t call you out for doing so, particularly if your objection is based on religious interpretations. But this gay marriage debate is going to be toxic for Republicans in the current national climate if these horses are allowed to fully get out of the barn.

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