Religious Conservatives Success in Constructing Gay Marriage as a Threat to Religious Liberties
11 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2012 Last revised: 4 Jul 2021
Date Written: 2012
In November 2008 California voters approved Proposition 8, which inserted a clause into the state’s constitution banning LGBTQI marriage. This took place just six months after the California Supreme Court had ruled in support of the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry under the state Constitution’s privacy and due process clauses. The main sponsors and organizers of the Yes on 8 Campaign was a coalition of conservative religious institutions, primarily consisting of Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals. Even though California is a largely secular state, religious conservatives mounted a strong grassroots campaign that successfully portrayed gay marriage rights as a threat to the religious liberties of the majority. By January 2010, California was one of 29 states that had enacted similar constitutional prohibitions against same sex marriage. Although it is quite possible that the judicial appeals of Proposition 8 will eventually make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the outcome of that court’s deliberations remain far from clear. This is another indication of the continued salience of religion in debates over minority civil rights in the U.S.
Even though gays and lesbians are seeking civil marriage rights, the main opposition to the extension of these rights in the U.S. has consistently been conservative religious actors. Their rhetoric continues to be effective despite polling data that indicates the American public’s growing acceptance of gay and lesbian lifestyles. Furthermore, despite the existence of a number of American religious denominations that now affirm gay marriage, the arguments made by conservative religious voices continue to dominate this policy debate. In fact, during California’s Prop 8 campaign, the voices of religious progressives were largely silenced. This stands in sharp contrast to the role religion has played in the public debates over gay marriage in a number of other economically advanced democracies.
I will set out to explain how religious conservatives have been able to convince American voters, even in a secular state such as California, that it is appropriate to deny what appears to be a clear matter of civil rights to a sexual minority? What does the contentious nature of the public debate over gay marriage rights tell us about the shifting contours of religion and politics in the United States? And finally, what distinguishes the public face of American religion from that found in other economically advanced democracies? The paper will draw on interview data collected from religious actors involved in the Prop 8 campaign, comparative work on the role of religious actors in the enactment of gay marriage laws in Europe, as well as my broader study of progressive American religious activism.
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