Rumors of the Death of Anti-Gay Marriage Movement Greatly Exaggerated

Gay-marriage advocates have been laying it on thick these last few days, building what appears to be an unstoppable momentum that will contribute to the inevitable: legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

It's only unstoppable in their imagination, and if they don't start taking a longer view of things, they are apt to be royally disappointed. Exactly five polls have come out in the last fortnight that show a majority support for gay marriage -- today. Those polls also show a strong minority -- more than 40% -- still opposed. Such a rapid change in public opinion on an issue that has been controversial for 20 years should be suspect. Other factors could be in play that help explain the shift.

What will those numbers be six months from now? As we've seen with the abortion issue and other sensitive social issues, there appears to be a portion of the U.S. population that flits back and forth between the pro and anti positions, depending on which way the political wind is blowing.

One could even argue that the toxicity of the GOP and conservatism in general may be driving some of the increased support for gay marriage. Who wants to take a position on an issue associated with the party of old, bluenose fuddy-duddies?

The bottom line: Anti-gay marriage advocates aren't giving up and aren't going anywhere. Those who see opposition to gay marriage as a moral calling or as a cause to save "traditional marriage" may lose a round or two in the courts, but rest assured that they are girding their loins for battle in state legislatures across the country. There are still 41 states that have not approved same-sex marriage, and for the marriage-equality crowd, it's still going to be a long, uphill climb to achieve their goal.

Jonathan Chait has designated himself obituary writer for the anti-gay marriage movement, claiming that Maggie Gallagher, a prominent figure in the movement, has all but given up:

Now the movement is in a state of total collapse, with every day seeming to bring new converts to the gay-marriage cause and the opposition losing all of its courage. There is no more telling sign of the opposition’s surrender than the public demoralization of Maggie Gallagher, the leading anti-gay-marriage activist and writer.

The unusual thing about the campaign to ban gay marriage is that it was dying from the moment it was born. Even at its peak, at the very outset, the portents of doom were visible on the horizon — polls showed that young voters strongly supported gay marriage. The best case for Gallagher and her allies appeared to be holding on for years, or even decades, but eventually gay-marriage opponents would age out of the electorate.

If Mr. Chait's crystal ball is that good, he should change careers and become a stock touter. Attitudes of the young can change from generation to generation. For example, more women today are pro-life than were 10 years ago. It's true that opposition to gay marriage is highest among older Americans. But Chait, who has been touting a similar end to the GOP because of changing demographics in America, should take a closer look at his pet numbers: 66% of black Protestants say that "same-sex marriage would violate their religious beliefs." And 69% of Catholics -- a large percentage being Hispanics -- also believe gay marriage would violate their religious tenets. At least 58% of black voters backed Proposition 8 in California (exit polls showed 70% support).

In short, the reported demise of the anti-gay marriage movement has been greatly exaggerated and is based more on wishful thinking than cogent analysis.

Just because a few politicians have recently stuck their fingers into the wind and had a Road to Damascus moment on gay marriage does not denote overwhelming, unstoppable momentum for universal gay-marriage rights in the U.S. This is especially true given the probability that the Supreme Court decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 will serve only to open the door a little wider for states to decide the issue themselves. Yes, it's a perilous game trying to predict how the Supreme Court will rule in those two cases. Recall that many of the same court watchers predicting victory for gay marriage also predicted the Roberts court would overturn the individual mandate in Obamacare. But the range of possibilities points to partial victories for gay-marriage supporters, with the justices leaving it up to states to decide the issue.

Some GOP consultants see this as a positive:

“It removes the issue from the Democratic playbook of fundraising scare tactics and political demagoguery and breaks their usual messaging dynamic of, ‘You’re a beleaguered minority; let us protect you from the evil GOP — oh, and here’s your absentee ballot,’” said Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson.

Wilson continued: “Democrats won’t be as happy explaining to gay business owners why Obamacare is crushing them; why the regulatory behemoth in D.C. is burying them in red tape; and why the American economy is still faltering. Republicans take an issue out of the federal domain and let states, churches and society handle it, and let’s stick to a message of growth and opportunity for every American.”

Would a Supreme Court decision actually take the issue out of the "federal domain"? Candidates for federal office running in the states will still have to declare their fealty to one side or the other. And you can bet that pro- and anti-gay marriage partisans will make sure a plank in both parties' platforms reflects their views. Mr. Wilson is as guilty of wishful thinking as Mr. Chait is.

What could easily happen is that the court's rulings -- due out in June -- would galvanize anti-gay marriage advocates, making them more determined than ever to stop the progress of marriage equality at the state level. The reaction to adverse rulings by the court will probably not be as visceral as that following the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, but the potential backlash would almost certainly grow the movement and convince more citizens to become activists in the cause -- foot soldiers in the coming struggle in state legislatures.

It will be an interesting battle, and both sides will be well-organized and well-funded. And the prospects for gay-marriage advocates to score a lot of victories over the next two years are not very good. Currently, there are 30 states headed by GOP governors and 17 states where both the upper and lower houses of the legislature are controlled by Republicans. The GOP controls at least one legislative body in seven more states. It certainly isn't a given that gay marriage will not win in any of those states -- any more than it is a given that it will triumph in states controlled by Democrats. But even the most optimistic gay-marriage supporter has to acknowledge the political realities at the grassroots level. Nothing is going to be easy.

Some might argue that no matter what the courts do, no matter what happens at the state level, gay marriage will remain an albatross around the necks of the GOP. The Democrats are no doubt going to try to achieve that goal. And some on the right will try to keep the issue alive at the national level, if only to maintain its visibility.

But once all the excitement dies down and the politicians start concentrating on the things we sent them to Washington to do -- rather than striking poses and proclaiming their sincere change of heart about gay marriage -- one might expect an equilibrium will return to the issue and the intense battle at the grassroots will be joined. Marriage-equality advocates may very well win out in the end. The Supreme Court isn't finished with the issue and the next chance it gets, it may grant gay-marriage advocates their wish.

But until that time, opponents will bide their time -- and keep their powder dry.