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How Will Conservatives Respond to Gay Marriage Ruling?

by Perry Bacon Jr. /  / Updated 

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The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down all gay marriage bans will force conservative Christians and Republican political leaders to make two critical decisions.

Will they acquiesce to this ruling, or continue to oppose gay marriage and fight to reverse this decision the way conservatives have battled against Roe v. Wade and abortion rights for a generation? And how they will they respond on other issues that involve the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender Americans, such as allowing gay men to lead Boy Scout troops?

Related: Landmark: Supreme Court Rules Same-Sex Marriage Legal Nationwide

In determining gay marriage is essentially a constitutional right, the Supreme Court in effect ratified the huge shift in public opinion in favor of same-sex unions. Polls suggest the majority of the public overall backs gay marriage, with Americans under 30 and Democrats overwhelmingly supportive.

At the same time, many religious Christians and Republicans over age 50 remain opposed to same-sex marriage, according to polls. Few Republicans holding elective office, particularly in the South, have embraced gay marriage. And the only Republican presidential candidate who currently supports same-sex unions is businesswoman Carly Fiorina.

Related: 'Historic Victory': Reactions to Marriage Ruling Pour In

“We are at the water’s edge of the argument that mainstream Christianity teaching is hate speech,” Florida senator and 2016 candidate Marco Rubio told the Christian Broadcasting Network in an interview last month. "Because today we've reached the point in our society where if you do not support same-sex marriage you are labeled a homophobe and a hater."

The most obvious challenge for Republicans regarding gay marriage is the upcoming presidential campaign. The party’s leading candidates all denounced Friday's ruling, saying they believed in "traditional marriage" or that marriage is "between a man and a woman."

In contrast, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, strongly supported the Court's decision.

But both ex-Florida governor Jeb Bush and Rubio have signaled they would do little to stop gay marriage if elected. Neither backs the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that Bush’s brother George W. supported in his 2004 campaign.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took a stronger anti-gay marriage stance after Friday's ruling, saying he would support a constitutional amendment that would allow individual states to ban same-sex unions.

"The only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage," he said in statement.

This opposition to gay marriage makes sense for the Republican primary process, which begins in Iowa, whose caucuses are dominated by older and religious voters. And it reflects long-held personal opposition to same-sex marriage by many Republicans.

Related: 'Highest Ideals of Love': Highlights From the Marriage Ruling

But Republicans are wary of losing voters under 30 in the general election, after young people overwhelmingly (60 percent to 36 percent) backed President Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012. (This is in part not about age, but ethnicity, as a higher percentage of young voters are minorities.)

Democrats, as Rubio suggested in his CBN interview, are likely to cast GOP candidates who don’t support gay marriage as intolerant. So in the general election, the Republican nominee will face pressure to either reverse his or her stance on gay marriage or couch their opposition carefully.

Bush is already taking steps to balance both views. On Friday, he said, "good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side."

The conventional wisdom for now among Republicans is opposition to gay marriage is politically palatable as long as they don’t campaign intensely on the issue.

But it’s unclear if such a position is tenable, if the number of Americans backing gay marriage continues to rise over the next year.

Unlike abortion, it will be difficult for Republicans to fight same-sex marriage. The 1973 Roe ruling left a lot of room for restrictions on abortion rights, so conservatives have passed measures such as requiring waiting periods and banning abortions in the last few months of a pregnancy.

It’s not clear there are any such ways to limit gay marriage.

Realizing the Court was likely to rule in favor of a national right to gay marriage, the GOP had essentially ceded the marriage issue even before Friday.

But Republicans have sought to pass so-called religious freedom laws. Those provision are designed in part to allow businesses owned by those opposed to gay marriage not to have to engage in activities that in effect condone same-sex unions.

Christian-owned caterers, for example, could choose not to prepare food for gay weddings.

But these laws have generated a backlash. Gay rights groups, joined by Democrats and many businesses and corporations, have decried those religious freedom laws as discrimination and stopped the movement to pass them.

A religious freedom law in Indiana was weakened earlier this year amid national protests, and lawmakers in even deeply-conservative Texas abandoned an attempt to adopt such a provision earlier this year.

And a new set of issues is now emerging that will again pit more traditional and religious voters against an increasingly diverse society. Many Boy Scouts troops are sponsored by churches and other religious groups, where opposition to same-sex marriage and gay rights remains strong.

But Robert Gates, the former Defense Secretary who is now the president of Boys Scouts of America, said in a recent speech that the ban on gay leaders “cannot be sustained” in today’s political environment.

The New York Times editorial board called earlier this month for the U.S. military to reverse its ban on transgender people serving openly. The Obama administration recently urged the end of so-called gay conversion therapy, in which psychiatric treatments are used to try to turn gay people into heterosexuals.

Republican candidates are growing tired of answering questions about these issues. Some of the candidates chafed when Hugh Hewitt, a conservative talk show host, pressed them on whether they would attend a same-sex wedding.

Campaigning in Texas, Texas senator and 2016 candidate Ted Cruz, after being asked repeatedly about his views on gay marriage, said liberals and the press were “obsessed with sex.”

While Republicans are wary of these issues, Clinton has has been eager to highlight her support of gay rights.

“Well done, Ireland,” she tweeted last month, praising the first country to adopt gay marriage by a popular vote.

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