As gay rights spotlight shifts to Sochi, sides square off back in the U.S.

BY Bridget Bowman  February 4, 2014 at 5:48 PM EST
Gay rights supports crowded outside the Supreme Court in June, 2013, awaiting word on the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Gay rights supports crowded outside the Supreme Court in June, 2013, awaiting word on the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images

One week before the Winter Olympics were set to begin in Sochi, 40 human rights groups sent a letter to the games’ top American sponsors, urging them to pressure Russia to address its anti-gay policies.

“Discrimination has no place in the Olympics, and LGBT people must not be targeted with violence or deprived of their ability to advocate for their own equality,” they wrote. “As all eyes turn toward Sochi, we ask you to stand with us.”

One of letter’s signatories was the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. HRC focuses on grassroots efforts to promote equality in the United States and was a driving force behind the gay rights movement in 2013.

“We’ll look back and see 2013 as yet another major step forward, recognizing that we still have a long way to go,” said the HRC’s Legal Director, Brian Moulton.

Supporters of same-sex marriage in the U.S. celebrated some major victories in 2013. In June, the Supreme Court ruled on two landmark cases. The high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), expanding federal benefits to same-sex couples, and sent the case surrounding a statewide gay-marriage ban back to California, effectively legalizing gay marriage in that state.

Moulton said the the DOMA decision was “groundbreaking” but acknowledged that the Supreme Court stopped short of addressing statewide bans on same-sex marriage by dismissing California’s Proposition 8 case. He said the court will likely address bans in the near future, considering that there are two dozen other lawsuits filed in federal courts challenging state amendments prohibiting gay marriage. “That is very likely to be the way that we see some of these amendments removed,” said Moulton.

Opponents of same-sex marriage disagree that the court will declare statewide bans unconstitutional. Peter Sprigg, Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at the conservative Family Research Council told PBS NewsHour, “I remain skeptical that the Supreme Court would dare to impose what we’ve referred to as a ‘Roe v. Wade’ of same-sex marriage.” Sprigg noted that when the justices addressed the issue of abortion in
Roe vs. Wade, “all they did was unsettle it and inflame the division.”

While those on both sides of the issue will keep an eye on the courts in 2014, they are also focusing some of their efforts on the states. In 2013, the number of states allowing same-sex marriage doubled. However, most states have provisions banning same-sex marriage and of those 33 states, 29 have constitutional amendments prohibiting gay marriage. “If it was a football game we would still be ahead,” said Sprigg.

Overturning state constitutional amendments is also a difficult and complicated process. The Human Rights Campaign’s Brian Moulton said advocates of gay marriage “have to look at tactics and shift our approach when it comes to this next year. We’re certainly at a higher hurdle in a lot of ways.” The first test for supporters will be in Oregon, where the Human Rights Campaign is working to repeal its constitutional amendment as part of a ballot initiative in 2014.

Opponents of same-sex marriage are focusing their state-level efforts on Indiana, where they are hoping to pass an amendment banning same-sex marriage, which passed Indiana’s House of Representatives last week. “That’s a top priority for us,” said Sprigg. “We can show that the momentum is not completely on the other side.”

However, advocates of same-sex marriage gained some momentum in 2013. Along with victories in the Supreme Court and a number of states, gay rights advocates also saw the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate. Almost two decades after a narrow defeat, 64 Senators voted to pass ENDA, banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

While this was a significant victory, ENDA has stalled in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner refused to bring the act to a vote. Brian Moulton said “employment is a huge issue” for the gay rights movement and they will continue to lobby for a vote in the House, but he admits “it’s a challenge given the leadership’s opposition to it.”

On the other hand, conservative groups including the Family Research Council
are working to keep ENDA off the House floor. Peter Sprigg said ENDA is “the biggest threat [to religious liberty] that we face” at the federal level. Sprigg said ENDA “comes up against the right of the employer and of religious employees, who may be disciplined for expressing religious views”

One religious leader made headlines in 2013 for his comments in support of the gay community. In July, Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, told reporters, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

However, Dr. John Grabowski, an associate professor at Catholic University, said the pope’s comments were not a divergence from Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church has always condemned any discrimination against the gay community, said Grabowski, and it continues to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Grabowski said Pope Francis’ comments were “an adjustment of the Church’s tone, not a change of his teaching.”

Grabowski said there is “not a debate within the leadership” about changing the Church’s stance towards homosexuality. Instead, he noted that society has accepted a changing definition of marriage and reigniting a debate about marriage may be fruitless. “We’re not going to stop the ship from sailing and there are leaders in the Church who realize this,” Grabowski told the NewsHour. He added that the Catholic Church faces a broader challenge of engaging in a debate that is defined in terms of equal rights.

Conservatives agree that when they speak out against same-sex marriage in defense of traditional marriage, they are portrayed as denying equal rights to same sex-couples. “The other side has been effective in framing the issue,” said Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council. Sprigg said the FRC is working to redefine the debate “with respect to the definition of marriage” instead of equal rights.

“The homosexual movement is very well organized and very well-funded,” said Sprigg. “They have the wind behind their sails in term of major cultural institutions supporting them,” including the news media, the entertainment industry, and academia.

Brian Moulton of the Human Rights Campaign also said the media played a major role in bringing the issue of same-sex marriage to the forefront in 2013. “There’s been so much more cultural change and public dialogue and presence of LGBT people in the mainstream media,” said Moulton. “More and more realities of LGBT people and their lives are reflected in broader culture.”

Another cultural force driving the issue is a younger generation coming of age that overwhelmingly supports the legalization of gay marriage. However, Peter Sprigg said he is not completely discouraged by the poll numbers. “We find that those same individuals, like other generations … may become more conservative as they grow older,” said Sprigg.

On the other hand, Brian Moulton found the views of the so-called millennial generation extremely encouraging. Moulton said, “It certainly gives us confidence that really these changes are, if nothing else, just a matter of time.”

Many Americans seem to side with Moulton. The Pew Research Center found that in 2013 a majority of both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage believe legalization of gay marriage is inevitable.


Tonight on the PBS NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown discusses the state of gay rights and the upcoming Sochi olympics with Brian Moulton and Andranik Migranyan, Director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation. Tune in on your local PBS station, or watch here on the PBS NewsHour live stream.