In one respect, the U.S. House vote to codify same-sex-marriage rights (and formally repeal the long-moot Defense of Marriage Act) on July 19 was just a very visible response to Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In agreeing with the Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and abolish constitutionally guaranteed abortion rights, Thomas argued that other landmark decisions recognizing a right to contraception, to same-sex relationships, and to same-sex marriage should also be overturned as similarly illegitimate. So House Democrats are lining up votes to create, as a matter of federal statutory law, contraception and same-sex-marriage rights in case their constitutional status is lost. There is no imminent threat of that happening, but you never know with this Court.
Politically, though, the decision to hold a vote on marriage equality shows how public opinion has completely changed since state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages were a hardy-perennial culture-war measure that Republicans used to divide Democrats. Most famously, attacks on same-sex marriage accompanied George W. Bush’s narrow 2004 reelection win thanks to the belief that highlighting this issue would boost conservative Christian turnout and help flip a small but significant number of Black voters from voting Democrat to Republican. And Democrats were indeed divided on the subject; President Barack Obama didn’t announce support for marriage equality until 2012 (anticipated by his vice-president, Joe Biden). Gallup showed majority public support for same-sex-marriage rights in 2011, and, by 2015, when the Supreme Court swept away state gay-marriage bans in Obergefell v. Hodges, public support had risen to 60 percent. In 2021, Gallup reported that a majority of self-identified Republicans supported marriage equality; overall, as of May of this year, 71 percent of Americans have come around to that view. Only 42 percent agreed in 2004, when politically the shoe was on the other foot.
So now Democrats are in a position to make same-sex marriage a wedge issue dividing the GOP. And while marriage equality is a much more popular position among Republicans these days, same-sex marriage specifically and LGBTQ+ rights generally remain an abomination to the conservative Evangelical and traditionalist Catholic activists who play so central a role in GOP politics. At a moment when all the energy in that party is on the right, there will be plenty of noisy pushback against the newly popular acceptance of LGBTQ+ people as equals.
So Republican politicians would love to see this issue go away:
Nothing to see here, House Republican leaders are implicitly saying.
While the marriage-equality bill easily passed the House with 47 Republicans joining all the Democrats, it’s unclear whether Senate Republicans will seek to filibuster it. Ted Cruz has been loudly agreeing with Thomas about the illegitimacy of Obergefell and the primacy of the states in determining marriage laws. Will Mitch McConnell take a walk like his House counterparts, to the fury of Christian-right leaders and their allies like Cruz and a host of other would-be Republican presidential nominees? We’ll see. But it’s now the GOP that is in well-deserved agony on the subject.
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