Opponents of Same-sex Marriage Consider Strategy as Supreme Court Prepares to Hear Arguments

John G. Kallam Jr. is one of six county magistrates in North Carolina to step down rather than conduct same-sex marriages. (PHOTO CREDIT: Travis Dove for The New York Times)
John G. Kallam Jr. is one of six county magistrates in North Carolina to step down rather than conduct same-sex marriages. (PHOTO CREDIT: Travis Dove for The New York Times)

John G. Kallam Jr., 67, carries a worn black Bible and another copy on his iPad, and believes Scripture is unequivocal.

“Sodom and Gomorrah, that story alone tells you what God thinks of same-sex marriage,” he said. “God said that homosexual behavior is a sin and that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Like three-quarters of the voters in rural Rockingham County, he checked “yes” in the 2012 plebiscite when North Carolina joined some 30 other states in adopting constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. “I breathed a sigh of relief,” he recalled.

But last October, Mr. Kallam was stunned when a federal judge overturned the ban.

An appointed county magistrate, Mr. Kallam was obligated to perform civil marriages. So he resigned, one of six in the state who stepped down to avoid violating their faith.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on same-sex marriage on Tuesday, the nation seems more ready to accept it than many imagined even a year ago. But divisions remain, and while more than half of Americans now endorse the idea, about one-third say they oppose it, according to survey data from 2014.

In Northeastern states like Vermont and New York, large majorities support same-sex marriage. And in many more states including California, where a vote in 2008 to ban it was later overturned by the courts, such marriages have become routine.

In perhaps a dozen other states, mainly in the South and the Great Plains, majorities still think that gay couples should not be allowed to marry, studies indicate. Some conservative leaders promise to keep defending that view whatever the Supreme Court decrees — and even if they have few practical options.

“If the government wants to pretend to redefine marriage, I don’t think that will settle the issue,” said Tami Fitzgerald, the executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition.

Still, once the Supreme Court speaks, in a decision widely expected to make same-sex marriage a national right, the opponents’ anger and energies are likely to focus on a more limited issue, what they call protections for conservative religious officials or vendors who want to avoid involvement in same-sex weddings.

Gerald N. Rosenberg, a political scientist and legal scholar at the University of Chicago, said his former predictions of a wider, lasting backlash to marriage rulings had been overtaken by the “sea change in public opinion.”

Such “opt out” proposals may produce political heat, as recently seen in Indiana and Arkansas, where the governors, under pressure from businesses, felt compelled to weaken so-called religious freedom bills. But they will not impede the ability of gay couples to marry, Mr. Rosenberg said.

In North Carolina, the Senate president, Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, is the chief sponsor of a bill that would allow the county officials who issue marriage licenses as well as magistrates to decline to participate in marriages on religious grounds. The bill has passed the Senate.

It is strongly opposed by gay rights advocates who argue that “public officials can’t pick and choose,” in the words of Chris Sgro, the executive director of Equality North Carolina.

The strongest resistance so far to court-directed change has been in Alabama, where the State Supreme Court ruled that a federal judge’s decision striking down the same-sex marriage ban should apply only to the specific plaintiffs. In legal limbo, the state is waiting to see how the Supreme Court will decide.

Yet whatever resistance strategies are adopted, many legal and political experts who have studied the impact of divisive Supreme Court rulings in the past, and the trajectory of the same-sex marriage movement, say they do not expect a lasting, powerful backlash of the kind that followed decisions on school desegregation and abortion.

Instead, the experience in states where same-sex marriage has already been legalized suggests that public opposition is likely to wither over time.

“As more couples marry, more people will know people who are married,” said Michael J. Klarman, a legal historian at the Harvard Law School and author of a 2012 book on earlier same-sex marriage rulings. “And those who oppose it will find out that the sky doesn’t fall.”

Without question, the legal turn has been abrupt. Since mid-2013, when the Supreme Court invalidated the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that forbade the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, the number of states in which same-sex marriage is permitted jumped from around a dozen to 37, if Alabama is included, and the District of Columbia.

Most of these states were required to change by federal courts, often provoking the resentments expressed by Mr. Kallam, especially in rural regions. If the Supreme Court extends marriage rights, all remaining states will be forced to end restrictions.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Erik Eckholm