The GOP struggles with same-sex marriage

The fight over marriage should be a war of ideas, not a war between Americans or between the GOP and gays. Photo: AP

NEW YORK, March 29, 2013 ― If the GOP has not yet reached the point where severe disapproval to same-sex unions comes only from their evangelical Christian right, they will soon. This presents a major predicament for the Republican Party, who is with growing concern searching for a new direction that expands its voter base beyond its aging core.

If the federal government is going to join in the fray over same-sex marriage, and if it’s going to define marriage, then Republican lawmakers and leadership must begin to consider a new strategy for handling this issue, and should consider whether this is a subject that is important to the principles of political and fiscal conservatism.

If they decide that it is, GOP leaders must carefully define the principles involved. Republicans have a very hard task in the upcoming months, just as they do with the illegal immigration debate. Both pose two very difficult questions for them: What is the principled and moral position; and how can Republicans move forward without completely demonizing itself with constituencies that it will someday need. Young voters may grow more conservative as they age, but voting habits formed in strong antipathy to one party die hard.

Although both Democrats and Republicans are finding ways to navigate the issue, Democrats have taken the lead among younger voters by advocating for the rights of same-sex couples and recognizing their marriages at the federal level. And in this case, younger is anyone under 40.

Surprisingly, we already have a solution, one which harks back to the 10th Amendment to the United States Constitution. That amendment reserves undelegated powers to the states, if they are not specifically prohibited. Marriage has always been under local jurisdiction, and if it is going to be true to its federalist principles, the GOP should argue to keep it there. That means rejecting laws like DOMA.

Public opinion has already begun to coalesce around this issue; a majority of registered Republicans and conservatives already support government-recognition of same-sex unions. So let’s consider whether the GOP can win this debate. Its long-term health depends on its ability to make principled, persuasive arguments that broaden its base, by persuading people that conservative principles are consistent with the facts and with common-sense approaches.

SEE RELATED: Why the Supreme Court will kill DOMA and Prop 8

Individual states should be the last word in defining what a marriage is. Leaving decisions to the states their legislatures is often a concern to conservatives, who fear that the people will choose incorrectly, and terrifying to liberals, who have a pathological dread of non-uniform views of rights across the country. However, the risk of states like Vermont and Idaho not having identical interpretations of rights and uniform laws was one the Founding Fathers were willing to take, so long as the states don’t attempt to do anything prohibited. Religious conservatives might have to live with same-sex marriage in New York, while liberals might have to look elsewhere to celebrate same-sex marriages if the people of Mississippi refuse to redefine marriage to accomodate them. 

Reinvigorating the Tenth Amendment and the idea of state sovreignty will allow more people to live as they please. Why does this strategy work for the GOP? It gives Republicans the a platform to push for the reduction of the federal government’s role on issues like this while recognizing the right of the LGBT community to fight for issues they care about through the state democratic process. It may not entirely satisfy the LGBT community nationwide, but it doesn’t dismiss them, either.

Realistically, the GOP cannot and should not abandon one large constituency and its values in order to woo another. Politics is about prioritizing values, and in this case the conservative value of reducing the power of central government may be greater than the religious values that impel many Republicans to resist legalizing same-sex marriage. Unless the GOP intends to be the party of a religion, the broader secular value should dominate. The GOP should not be in the business of deciding whether to trade the votes of one group for the votes of another, but rather of standing up for values and principles - in this case the principle of limited central government. To do otherwise would be a cynical move that would totally abandon evangelical Christian support, while earning the GOP nothing more than the contempt of the LGBT community and its supporters.

It’s important to believe in standards and to have a standard to define marriage. Some of those standards are religious, and some are secular. The gay marriage debate is over where to draw lines about which parts of marriage should be governed by the federal government, state government, and religious belief. Federalism is the correct way to balance this issue and put decisions back into the hands of the people, while also accepting and wooing new voters regardless of sexual orientation. The GOP should not oppose extending gay marriage or gay rights if there’s no overriding secular reason to do so, but Republican lawmakers can help shape the debate to ensure that states have a say in this issue, and to recognize that the war here should be between competing ideas, not between Americans or between the GOP and the LGBT community. 

SEE RELATED: Supreme Court questions DOMA’s legitimacy


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