By Mark Preston
WASHINGTON — New Mexico Pastor Steve Smothermon says he is ready to go to jail to protect his religious freedom. And he is not the only one.
Smothermon is one of more than 50,000 people who have signed a pledge to engage in social disobedience if the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling this month that would legalize same sex marriage across the country.
“We want to help people, but we are not going to be forced by the government and society or the politically correct to say we are going to believe in it,” said Smothermon, senior pastor of Legacy Church in Albuquerque. “If they said, ‘Listen pastor, we are going to put you in jail if you don’t honor this.’ I am going to say, ‘Then put me in jail.’ ”
Emotions are running high as the nation waits to see how the Court will rule on whether states should be required to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples and if a state should be forced to recognize same sex marriages performed in another state. Some social conservatives argue that recognizing same sex marriage will weaken the nation’s moral fabric as well as their religious freedom. Supporters of a constitutional right for same sex marriage say it is high time the nation recognized these unions.
No matter how the Court rules, it is expected to have dramatic political implications in the 2016 elections and beyond.
Until recent years, same sex marriage has been an issue relegated to the shadows, as politicians either did not support or would not publicly endorse it.
And it wasn’t just Republicans who opposed same sex marriage. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act — a law that defined marriage as being between a woman and man. Clinton would later disavow his decision. President Barack Obama waited until 2012, seven months before Election Day, to announce his support of the right for gays and lesbians to marry.
Support of same sex marriage by elected officials tracks with changing public opinion on the issue. A majority of Americans, 63 percent, believe that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to get married, according to a May CNN/ORC International Poll. In August 2010, the CNN/ORC poll showed that 51 percent of Americans believed that gays and lesbians did not have a constitutional right to marry.
“It is amazing thing for someone like me, who has been in politics for 35 years now, to see in your own lifetime an issue going from being a strong negative for your party to being a strong positive the way gay marriage has,” said Richard Socarides, an openly gay Democrat, who served as a senior adviser to President Clinton. “Democrats supported gay rights and never wanted to talk about it and Republicans opposed gay rights and always wanted to talk about it. It has completely shifted in a very short period of time.”
This shift is particularly pronounced with Democrats and Independents. The 2010 CNN/ORC poll shows that 56 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Independents supported a constitutional right for gays and lesbians to be married. In the latest CNN/ORC poll, support for a constitutional right for same sex marriage jumped to 74 percent for Democrats and 69 percent for Independents.
Republicans have also moved towards supporting same sex marriage, but a majority remains opposed. The May CNN/ORC poll showed that 60 percent of Republicans do not support a constitutional right to same sex marriage; in the 2010 CNN/ORC poll, 73 percent of Republicans were against it.
Dividing the GOP
Complicating matters for the GOP is that same sex marriage is a divisive issue within its own party. It not only pits social conservatives against centrist-leaning Republicans, but also younger people against their parents and grandparents.
The May CNN/ORC poll showed that 59 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independents under the age of 50 supported a constitutional right for gays and lesbians to marry, while 61 percent did not.
Growing support for same sex marriage among young Republicans, polling data and the fact it is already legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia is enough for some in the party to say it is time to let the issue go. In March, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who is gay, and more than 300 GOP office holders, activists and operatives including former Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady submitted a brief to the Court expressing support for same sex marriage.
Brady, who stepped down as chairman in 2013 after sparring with social conservatives for supporting same sex marriage in Illinois, said it is not productive for the GOP to continue fighting this issue.
“When we run as the party of big ideas we do very well,” said Brady. “Whether you agree or disagree on how the court has ruled, we need to focus on electing a Republican president.”
Still, there is strong opposition in the GOP when it comes embracing same sex marriage, and social conservatives want to put people on the record on this issue — specifically those running for the White House.
“We need to make sure we have presidential candidates standing up for religious liberty,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage.
Brown’s organization will unveil a 2016 presidential pledge Thursday, asking candidates to publicly state their support for marriage between one man and one woman. He said they would begin contacting campaigns immediately asking them to sign the pledge, much like Mitt Romney and other GOP presidential candidates did in 2012.
Already, two Republican presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, have added their names to the Defend Marriage Pledge, the online document Smothermon and 50,000 other people have signed in which they vow to ignore the Court’s ruling if it violates the teachings of their faiths.
“A decision purporting to redefine marriage flies in the face of the Constitution and is contrary to the natural created order,” reads the pledge. “As people of faith we pledge obedience to our Creator when the State directly conflicts with higher law. We respectfully warn the Supreme Court not to cross this line.”
Dr. Rick Scarborough, who helped launch the Defend Marriage Pledge, said it is critical for people to come together to fight for religious liberty. Scarborough, founder of the Judeo-Christian advocacy organization Vision America, said he is concerned that the government will try to force people and organizations to ignore the teachings of their faith and accept same sex marriage. In addition, he warned that if the Court ruled in favor of same sex marriage, it would a “slippery slope” resulting in the enactment of new laws that would further encroach on people’s religious liberties.
Scarborough noted that California and New Jersey have already passed laws in recent years outlawing “reparative therapy,” which supporters claim will help turn a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. (The American Psychiatric Association disagrees and opposes such treatment).
“The real issue for us is the effort to silence us for what we believe is true,” Scarborough said.
Ted Olson, former solicitor general of the United States under President George W. Bush, said he does “not think anyone’s religious liberty would be violated” if the Court rules in favor of same sex marriage.
“I do not believe someone would force a member of the clergy to perform a marriage,” said Olson, who successfully argued to overturn California’s prohibition on same sex marriage. But Olson did add that merchants would be prevented from asking personal questions of potential customers.
“If you are in the commercial world, just as in the case of race, I do not think if you have a bake shop you can ask someone their sexual orientation,” he said.
Issues for 2016
Opponents and supporters agree that regardless of how the Court rules on same sex marriage, the issue is not going away.
“We will work to overturn any illegitimate Supreme Court ruling and we will make sure that folks understand that it is an illegitimate ruling by the Court,” said Brown, who will be present outside the Court on the day of the ruling.
Adam Talbot, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization would continue to fight for equality even if the Court rules in favor of same sex marriage, because people who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender are “still at risk for discrimination.”
And expect to hear same sex marriage and religious liberty discussed on the campaign trail in the coming months — like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush each did this past week.
“They turn their backs on gay people who love each other,” Clinton said at a campaign rally over the weekend, accusing the Republican candidates of refusing to back same sex marriage.
Bush warned that if Clinton is elected president she would work to weaken their religious freedoms.
“These have been rough years for religious charities and their right of conscience,” Bush said. “And the leading Democratic candidate recently hinted of more trouble to come. Secretary Clinton insists that when the progressive agenda encounters religious beliefs to the contrary those beliefs, quote, ‘have to be changed.’
“That’s what she said, and I guess we should at least thank her for the warning.”