Anyone who has paid any attention at all to the marriage equality debate has heard an equality opponent speak some version of this line: “All Americans have the freedom to live as they choose. But no one has the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us.”
There’s a reason for that. The National Organization for Marriage instructs its activists that it is the “most effective single sentence” the anti-marriage-equality movement has:
Extensive and repeated polling agrees that the single most effective message is the following: “Gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose; they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.” This allows people to express support for tolerance while opposing gay marriage.
Not surprisingly, people like former NOM President Maggie Gallagher use that talking point. And even as the movement continues to lose public support and legal battles, they have maintained message discipline when it comes to using this sentence. You can find nearly endless examples of it with tiny variations, spanning more than a decade. Here are just a few examples:
- Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson used the line in his speech at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Matt Daniels, head of the Alliance for Marriage used it back in 2001 and again in 2004 when he was invited to George W. Bush’s speech endorsing a federal marriage amendment;
- Pastor Dave Woodward used a version in 2012 while urging Washington voters to overturn the state’s new marriage equality law; other anti-equality religious leaders have used it as well, including the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey in 2012;
- Members of Congress used it during the 2004 debate on a Federal Marriage Amendment, including then-Rep. J.D. Hayworth – who tossed in “activist judges” – and then-Sens. Sam Brownback, Wayne Allard, and Kay Bailey Hutchison;
- Kate Sweeney, assistant director of the Colorado-based Catholic women’s group ENDOW, used it while opposing a state civil unions bill in 2013;
- Most recently, Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, a former U.S. senator, used the line in a video promoting NOM’s 2015 March for Marriage.
Of course, the line is not only ineffective, judging by the continued pro-equality swing in public attitudes, but it’s also ridiculously disingenuous coming from people who have tried so hard over the years to restrict the ability of LGBT people “to live as they choose,” as PFAW Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon recently documented.
That includes DeMint, who believes gay people should not allowed to be teachers and slams the Supreme Court for overturning sodomy laws that made gay people criminals. And it certainly includes the Heritage Foundation, which slams landmark equality cases Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans as examples of unacceptable “judicial activism.”
Heritage, also the professional home of the fresh-faced hope of the marriage equality movement Ryan T. Anderson, opposes the Employment Non Discrimination Act, which would protect people from being fired for being gay, and fought federal hate crimes legislation. Of course, Anderson frequently uses the same poll-tested phrase, as he did in a 2013 briefing paper for Heritage on the perils of “redefining marriage.”
While it is increasingly true that LGBT Americans are “free to live as they choose,” that goal is far from being accomplished nationwide. And whatever progress has been made, it has been over the opposition of people who now smile into the camera and hope to hide their anti-gay agenda with a little deceptive messaging.