Republican presidential hopefuls, all of whom oppose gay marriage, have a new litmus test in the cultural wars: would they attend a same-sex wedding?
The question highlights the tricky terrain for Republicans and comes as the Supreme Court is set to hear opening arguments on whether gay marriage is a Constitutional right on Tuesday. Polls, meanwhile, continue to show that the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage.
Republicans eyeing the White House must strike a balance between the moderate business wing of their party, which is more in line with the general public, and the Christian conservative wing which flatly opposes same-sex marriage and any attempts to penalize private business owners for refusing to provide services for gay weddings.
Broadening the party means hewing closely to the “compassionate conservative” approach that worked on the national level in 2000 and 2004.
But Republicans still have to deal with the reality of their party – according to a CNN/ORC poll, 55% of Republicans don’t think gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry and 42% think that they do have that right.
The Supreme Court could offer an easy out to the GOP by legalizing same-sex marriage across the country, allowing some White House hopefuls to say they disagree with same-sex marriage as a matter of faith, but also say that the debate is a matter of settled law.
“The Supreme Court gave Republicans a gift by taking up this issue and taking it up this year,” said Gregory T. Angelo, the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a group that supports civil marriage equality. “There will be 17 months of advanced notice that GOP candidates will have to come to the conclusion that I hope they will come to, which is to understand that gay families are here to stay and part of the fabric of this country. For those Republicans who maintain an opposition to gay marriage, it is only going to get more difficult to hold that line “
After same-sex marriage became legal in Florida in January, Jeb Bush said in a statement that “we have to respect the rule of law” and he called for respecting people on both sides of the debate. His stance could foreshadow the way other more establishment candidates approach the issue once the court rules.
But a sweeping decision in favor of same-sex marriage could also provide new energy for Christian conservatives who want a battle rather than a truce. The fault line between GOP establishment candidates and those heavily courting grassroots religious voters in states like Iowa and South Carolina is likely to sharpen.
“If the Supreme Court acts as many are anticipating, it will not diffuse the issue. It will escalate all the more. It’s more likely religious freedom could become the biggest wedge issue of the 2016 election,” said Steve Deace, a conservative radio talk show host in Iowa. “Talking point answers simply won’t play. Conservatives are looking for action and want to know what your record is on the issue.”
But even staking out a position on religious freedom laws has been less than straightforward. In Indiana, Georgia and Arkansas, states with Republican governors, such laws have faced a backlash, as big business came out in strong opposition, and forcing conservative lawmakers to backpedal or table the issue altogether.
Nearly 70% of Republicans think that wedding businesses should be allowed to refuse services based on religious grounds.
The shifting legal and cultural landscape finds Republican hopefuls staking out a position on complicated terrain.
Of the declared candidates, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has been the most strident, standing fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds, even as he attended an event hosted by two gay Republicans. On Saturday, he urged a Christian conservative audience in Iowa to “fall on our knees and pray,” in advance of the Supreme Court’s decision which is expected in June.
“There is a liberal fascism that is dedicated to going after believing Christians who follow the biblical teaching on marriage,” the Texas Republican said. “We need leaders who will stand unapologetically in defense of marriage.”
Cruz has borrowed from President George W. Bush’s 2004 playbook in introducing a bill that would nullify any court decision and amend the Constitution to allow states to define marriage in the traditional way.
The Texas Republican will likely have company from other conservatives, most notably Rick Santorum who opposed civil unions, and same-sex marriage when he ran in 2012 and also backed a constitutional amendment. Santorum recently said he would not attend a same-sex wedding, putting him at odds with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal who both said they would attend such a wedding. Rubio also said that gays and lesbians do not have a Constitutional right to marry.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said he attended a reception for a gay wedding, though he argued the matter should be left up the states.
But the state’s rights argument, which Kentucky Sen. Sen. Rand Paul has also espoused, is exactly what’s at issue for the nine justices, and that approach could sound empty if they decide that everyone has a right to wed.
Whoever the eventual GOP nominee is will have to decide what to do about the party platform, which states that “the union of one man and one woman must be upheld as the national standard, a goal to stand for, encourage, and promote through laws governing marriage.”
Already, some factions of the party are pushing for the removal of that language, while others expect it to remain.
“If the Supreme Court attempts to impose same-sex marriage on all 50 states in a single, judicial fiat, it will backfire much like Roe v. Wade failed to put an end to the pro-life movement,” said Timothy Head, Executive Director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “To that end, we expect Republican candidates for President and the Republican party platform to remain steadfast in their support of traditional marriage.”
What that support actually looks like – policy proposals or simply rhetoric – will remain an open question as Republicans head into 2016.