It was the day after the U.S. Senate voted to give final approval to legislation codifying marriage equality nationwide, and the American Family Association (AFA) was not happy.
“12 Senate Republicans surrender to Democrat homosexual agenda,” carped a headline on an email the Tupelo, Miss.-based Christian Nationalist group issued.
The message quoted several Christian Nationalist figures who portrayed the vote in the darkest possible terms.
“This dangerously cynical and completely unnecessary bill is a direct attack on the First Amendment,” harrumphed Ryan Bangert, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Alliance Defending Freedom. The bill, Bangert claimed, “undermines religious freedom everywhere and exposes Americans throughout the country to predatory lawsuits by activists seeking to use the threat of litigation to silence debate and exclude people of faith from the public square.”
Craig DeRoche, president and CEO of the Family Policy Alliance, the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family (FOF), asserted, “If this bill becomes law, it will be a dark day. Faith-based adoption and foster agencies may be forced to shut their doors and people of faith – from a variety of religious backgrounds – will live under the threatening shadow of government punishment simply for abiding by their deeply-held beliefs.”
In fact, none of these claims are valid. The legislation, known as the Respect for Marriage Act (RMA), requires states and the federal government to recognize all valid marriages between same-sex and interracial couples. In that sense, it merely maintains the status quo.
The bill, which President Joe Biden signed into law Dec. 13, also repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a law that barred the federal government from recognizing marriages between same-sex couples and permitted states to refuse to recognize them (although its effect had already been invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court).
Far from targeting religious agencies, the RMA offers them various forms of protection. For example, it reiterates that no house of worship can be compelled to perform same-sex unions and notes that people hold diverse “beliefs about the role of gender in marriage” and adds that “Congress affirms” that people and their diverse beliefs are “due proper respect.”
Outrageous claims, though, are a standard tool for Christian Nationalist organizations, especially when it comes to issues related to LGBTQ rights. After the U.S. Supreme Court extended marriage equality nationwide in 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, several Christian Nationalist organizations predicted dire consequences.
On the day the ruling was issued, June 26, 2015, the AFA’s Bryan Fischer called it “our 9/11” and asserted that religious freedom in America “is toast.”
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council opined that the Obergefell decision would mean “further deconstruction of the family.” FOF founder James Dobson predicted that opponents of marriage equality “may go to prison as the years unfold.” Other Christian Nationalist organizations predicted that houses of worship would be forced to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples.
None of this came to pass, but something did change in America: Support for marriage equality just kept growing.
The trend was well under way before Obergefell came down. In 1996, when the Gallup organization first began asking about marriage equality, only 27% said they favored legalizing same-sex marriage. Last June, that figure reached a new high of 71%.
Gallup noted that once support for marriage equality got on an upward trajectory, it continued to accelerate.
This change in public attitudes is nothing sort of remarkable in light of recent history. In the 1990s, both major political parties were on record as opposing marriage equality. President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and several states altered their constitutions to restrict marriage to one man and one woman.
While some Democrats supported marriage equality much earlier, a seismic shift occurred in May 2012, when President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, famously telling ABC News, “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue.” These days, Democrats are perceived as pro-marriage equality while Republicans are in opposition. But that’s an oversimplification: Gallup found that 55% of Republicans now support marriage equality, and the RMA passed with 12 Republican votes in the Senate and 47 in the House of Representatives.
Gallup also found that opposition to marriage equality correlates with a key factor: church attendance. “Americans who report that they attend church weekly remain the primary demographic holdout against gay marriage, with 40% in favor and 58% opposed,” reported the pollster.
Christian Nationalist groups don’t admit this upfront, but the relatively rapid shift in public attitudes on this issue may be what is angering them most of all. Twenty-seven years ago, they had public opinion on their side. Today, by a lopsided margin, they don’t. That must sting.
And behind that fact lurks an interesting question: Why did public opinion shift so quickly?
Peter Hart-Brinson, an associate professor of sociology and communication/journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, studied this question for his 2018 book The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture. He notes that two significant changes occurred during the 1990s and into the 2000s.
“One was that people were simply changing their minds: people who used to think that homosexuality was morally wrong began to rethink their prejudices,” Hart-Brinson told Church & State. “And since most people’s opposition to same-sex marriage was based on their opposition to homosexuality, attitudes about marriage equality followed suit.
“The other kind of change that was happening is what demographers called cohort replacement: older people with more conservative attitudes were dying, and they were being replaced in the electorate by younger people with more liberal attitudes,” he added. “In terms of numbers, most analysts agree that about two-thirds of the change in public opinion was because people changed their minds, while one-third of the change was due to cohort replacement.”
But Hart-Brinson noted there were other factors at play.
“Initially, the change was caused by the coming out strategy of the LGBTQ movement and the ways that the movement caused scientists, journalists, politicians and the entertainment industry to start talking about homosexuality differently in the media,” he remarked. “As more and more people started coming out as lesbian and gay, straight people began to think of them as ‘just like us.’ In the early 1990s, this turned into a big cultural shift, and you can see evidence of the shift in lots of places. This is when the first scientific studies showing that homosexuality has a genetic basis came out. In politics, President Clinton openly embraced the lesbian and gay community in the 1992 presidential campaign. And in popular culture, we started seeing more sympathetic portrayals of lesbian and gay characters on television and in movies.
“Ultimately,” Hart-Brinson said, “Americans started to think of homosexuality as an identity characteristic, like race, instead of as a deviant behavior, like gambling. Young people who were growing up during the 1990s and after came of age thinking about homosexuality differently than their elders. They started to bring home their lesbian and gay friends to meet their parents, and older Americans’ exposure to a new way of thinking ultimately proved persuasive. What’s amazing is that this change affected people from all political and religious backgrounds – Democrat or Republican, secular or religious, the generational change touched all corners of American society.”
That doesn’t mean the issue is entirely settled. The debate over marriage equality has moved to related matters. Some fundamentalists who own marriage-related businesses such as bakeries, caterers, photography firms and others are insisting they have a religious-freedom right to deny services to LGBTQ clients, despite laws in many states that ban such discrimination.
“Right now, the issue centers on religious liberty,” Hart-Brinson said. “In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a baker in Colorado could refuse service to a same-sex couple because of religious objections to same-sex marriage, and it just heard oral arguments in a similar case regarding a web designer who is worried about being sued under Colorado’s non-discrimination law. These cases could legalize discrimination against lesbian and gay couples, even if it doesn’t explicitly remove the right to marry.”
Americans United will continue to oppose discrimination wearing the cloak of “religious freedom.”
“Decades ago, we as a society agreed that businesses, which enjoy significant legal protections, must in return be open to all,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser. “Equality, dignity and humanity demand that everyone has the equal ability to access the goods and services they need, regardless of who they love, how they worship or what they look like.”