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POLITICS-US: Same-Sex Marriage Making a Comeback?

Bill Berkowitz*

OAKLAND, California, May 16 2008 (IPS) - Still not fully embraced by the religious right, Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, has been handed an opportunity to prove his loyalty to the party’s most influential and powerful grassroots force.

Before Thursday, May 15, the day the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage and affirmed the right of gay couples to marry – making it the second state in the nation (Massachusetts was the first) to do so – it appeared that the issue that played a major role in the 2004 presidential election would not be front and centre this time around.

In 2004, 13 states passed ballot measures banning same-sex marriage, including Ohio, where the initiative brought out record numbers of conservative Christian voters.

All three major candidates, Democratic Party Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the Republicans’ McCain have been in basic agreement on the issue: they oppose same-sex marriage and also oppose a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

The 4-3 decision by the California State Supreme Court – six of whom were appointed by Republican governors – gives the Arizona senator an opportunity to rethink the issue and restate his position.

“The California decision certainly reignites what was a smoldering and almost extinguished wedge issue for the religious right, as well as what will undoubtedly be reframed as an issue of ‘judicial tyranny,’ as it was for the theocratic ‘justice Sunday’ rallies a few years ago,” Frederick Clarkson, author of “Eternal Hostility” and co-founder of the blog Talk2Action, told IPS.

“Assuming that [an initiative banning same-sex marriage] will now be on the November ballot, four arrogant judges may have just put California in play in the presidential race, and it could have certainly changed the U.S. House math,” Rod Martin, founder of the conservative group, TheVanguard.org, told IPS. “McCain will do a lot better among Hispanics than most other Republicans could, and the marriage issue can only enhance that.”

“But when you throw into the mix lots of Californians, rightly upset at the court, turning out to vote for something they’ve already passed before, the left will have to spend a lot of resources in California which otherwise would have gone to winning Florida and Ohio, purely because the Court thinks it’s a legislature,” Martin added.

Over the years, McCain has had a rocky relationship with the party’s religious conservatives. During the 2000 Republican presidential primary campaign, after being pilloried for being soft of the religious right’s social agenda, McCain had the chutzpah to call the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance”.

In 2004, McCain further annoyed religious right leaders by opposing a federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which he labeled a states’ rights issue. Two years later, McCain backed an unsuccessful initiative in his home state banning same-sex marriage.

More recently, McCain tried to mend fences with religious right leaders. He spoke at Falwell’s Liberty University, and he sought and received the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee, the head of a San Antonio, Texas-based mega-church and the founder of Christians United for Israel. Hagee is well-known for anti-Catholic remarks (which he recently apologised for) and a controversial remark linking the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to a scheduled gay rights parade in New Orleans (which has hasn’t apologised for).

Hagee has also been in the forefront of hectoring the George W. Bush administration to take military action against Iran.

However, some religious right leaders – most notably Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson – have continued to maintain their distance. Earlier this year, Dobson said that he would not vote for McCain under any circumstances.

McCain is being presented with both an opportunity and a challenge. Ultimately, McCain “has stuck himself between a rock and a hard place,” said Clarkson. “His stance that the definition of marriage should be up to the states, in the view of much of the religious right, is an unacceptable de facto decision in favour of gay marriage. They view it as his striking a pose kind of opposed, without actually doing anything to stop it.”

Team McCain wasted little time stating its position, issuing a statement criticising the decision, and appearing to favour a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that is almost certain to appear on California’s November ballot.

Opinions differ on whether the California decision will impact the November elections.

Matt Barber, policy director for cultural issues for Concerned Women for America, sees it differently. He claimed that Republicans had been given “an early Christmas gift”. Brian S. Brown, the executive director of the National Organisation for Marriage in California, which opposes same-sex marriage, said that the court’s decision has “made same-sex marriage a major issue in the upcoming national election”.

The decision by Chief Justice Ronald George’s court “represents an electrifying opportunity for the McCain campaign and all Republican candidates,” Manuel Miranda, chairman, Third Branch Conference, an association of over 150 grasstop conservative and libertarian leaders, told IPS. “The George court achieved a campaign issue that Senate Republican leaders surrendered in 2006 and presently: a powerful reminder of the importance of judicial nominations.”

Miranda pointed out that the case put “California itself in play if the amendment referendum is on the 2008 ballot, and is a national opportunity for the McCain campaign if they understand it as such. He does not have to do anything to ingratiate himself [with the religious right], he just has to remind them of the George decision.”

“The left will tar and feather McCain on this issue anyway, because he was co-chairman of the traditional marriage campaign in Arizona: [so] he has absolutely nothing to lose,” Rod Martin pointed out.

“I expect McCain to try to exploit the ruling but not directly,” Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), told IPS. “Most of the work will probably be done through surrogates – far-right pastors and Religious Right leaders who will use the decision to demonise gay people and frighten the people in the pews. At the same time, McCain will appear a few times at Religious Right gatherings, such as the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit scheduled for September.”

Frederick Clarkson, who lives in Massachusetts, pointed out that while “state and national religious right groups targeted state legislators” since the Goodridge decision allowing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, “not a single pro-marriage equality state legislator lost his or her seat, and a number of openly pro-equality legislators were elected.

“This issue terrifies politicians of both parties who are uniformly afraid to say that marriage equality is a good thing, even if they believe that,” Clarkson added. “Politicians were similarly afraid to speak out for the equal civil rights for African Americans, even when they were secretly grateful for the courage of the federal courts for upholding the rights of all citizens.”

“The big question is whether playing the same sex-marriage card will work this time,” said AU’s Boston. “The economy is in the tank, gas has inched up to four dollars per gallon and people are losing their homes. Many voters, even conservative ones, may feel compelled to pay more attention to these issues rather than obsess over a decision by the California Supreme Court. All I can say is, ‘Stay tuned.'”

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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