State Anti-Marriage Equality Leaders Report from the Front Lines

About Frederick Clarkson

Some of the most important leaders in the conservative movement were on a marriage equality panel at the recent Values Voters Summit. But likely few of the conference participants had even heard of the panelists or the Family Policy Council, the network that makes them greater than the sum of their parts.

Panel moderator Cathi Herrod, president of the Arizona Center for Policy, is worried about the “Four states voting on whether marriage will be redefined in their states.” Herrod said that proponents of marriage equality (no, she didn’t really call them that) “see the fights in these states as the kickoff to reversing the victories in thirty-two states where the voters said ‘yes’ to marriage being defined as between one man and one woman.” She sees any victories by her opponents as potentially a “game changer.”

The four panelists, leaders of the anti-marriage equality forces in states where the issue is on the ballot this year, all head state level “Family Policy Councils” (as does Cathi Herrod). Built into a network of existing and newly created entities by Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council in 1988, these groups have played leading roles in every state level battle over marriage equality. (Cathi Herrod said that the groups are now affiliated with FOF, FRC, and FOF’s current political arm, Citizen Link, where there is a current list of affiliates.)

In the wake of the Reagan revolution, which devolved many areas of public policy development to the states, conservative movement strategists sought to create infrastructure much as they had in Washington. In 1999, I published a study, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State Level Think Tanks,” (pdf) on this and a parallel business-oriented network in The Public Eye. Generally speaking, the Focus on the Family-spawned network has pursued the agenda of the Religious Right, while groups affiliated with the State Policy Network were modeled after the Heritage Foundation, and pursued economic issues.

The main purpose of this VVS panel was to ask for political and financial help from the largely white evangelical activists in the house and across the country watching n the web. Here’s what the participants had to say about their respective states:

Carroll Conley, Maine: Conley expressed worry that the pro-marriage equality referendum may pass (polls show opponents down 8-10%) in this predominantly Catholic state for two main reasons: He credits the success of the frame of “equality” and blames the Catholic Church  for stepping back from its previous aggressive role and focusing instead on education. (He did not mention that the Church is on the ropes because of outrage among the state’s Catholics regarding its expensive and aggressive role in past years.) Conley recommends reading Eric Metaxas’s book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the (dubious) parallels between our time and Nazi Germany.

Derek McCoy, Maryland: McCoy seems confident of victory in overturning the legislature’s passage of a marriage equality bill, due to two critical factors: the large number of anti-marriage equality Catholic and African American voters in the state. “If we lose in Maryland specifically, the headlines will read the next day… ‘Obama wins on gay marriage.’ The next headline will be that the ‘Catholic governor of Maryland switches Catholic vote.’ Neither of those two things can we allow to happen on our watch.” McCoy admits to being about five points down in the polls, but says that there is “a clear path to victory.”

McCoy is a longtime member of the church led by Bishop Harry Jackson, an African American Christian Right activist (who also spoke at VVS) and longtime leader in the New Apostolic Reformation. Jackson is busy touring the country campaining against marriage equality — and against president Obama. He seeks to peel off African American and other minority voters by getting abortion and homosexuality to transcend all other issues. McCoy’s Maryland Family Alliance is in the process of affiliation with the national network.

John Helmberger, Minnesota: The Minnesota initiative would add an anti-marriage equality amendment to the state constitution, an amendment originally introduced in the legislature by then State Senator Michele Bachmann. Helmberger says polling shows majority of likely voters support the amendment in all parts of the state and among every demographic group, including the African American, Hmong, and Muslim communities. He offered an explicitly theocratic argument for the amendment: “What really drives us here is… marriage is about the Gospel. Marriage is a picture of the Gospel. By God’s design marriage is a picture of Christ the Bridegroom and his bride the Church.” He added: “If marriage is under attack anywhere, it is under attack everywhere.”

Joseph Backholm, Washington: The Washington initiative seeks to overturn the marriage equality bill passed by the legislature. Backholm has kind of a domino theory of ballot initiatives: he worries that if they lose, the pro-marriage equality movement will “smell blood in the water and think that they can now win.” And that even places like Texas and Louisiana will someday be affected. “What affects one of us,” he said, “affects all of us.” Backholm claims that supporters of marriage equality don’t really support same sex marriage, but support equality as “a way to prove that they don’t hate gay people.”

There is a video of the session available on the web site of the Family Research Council.

Frederick Clarkson, a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, has written about politics and religion for more than three decades. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy and editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.