Gay marriage becomes the law of the land in America

The Respect for Marriage Act is a welcome achievement. It also has lessons for broader social change

Editor’s note: President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act on December 13th.

Joe biden will shortly sign the Respect for Marriage Act, closing a chapter that began when Jack Baker and Michael McConnell applied, unsuccessfully, for a marriage licence in Minnesota in 1970. For many gay Americans, together with their friends and families, the new law comes as a relief. No longer is the right to marry contingent on the makeup of the Supreme Court at any given time. Even if the court strikes down Obergefell v Hodges, the 2015 case that legalised gay marriage in America, the effects of doing so would be much reduced.

When Mr Baker and Mr McConnell tried to marry half a century ago, they sought recognition that their relationship was as ordinary and as special as the 2m other marriages that happened in America that year. Now millions of gay Americans have that recognition, too. In states where gay marriage is legal, the federal government will recognise these unions. States that do not permit gay marriage will not be forced to adopt it. But they will be obliged to recognise marriages performed in other states. Thus the law strikes a balance between majority opinion, which favours gay marriage by a wide margin, and a minority who object on religious grounds.

Liberal democracies must find messy compromises between conflicting principles in order to thrive. The new law falls short of what many advocates for gay marriage, including this publication, want. One question concerns the rights of same-sex couples who married in their own state, for example. But at least the new law banishes the worst possible outcome, in which the country returns to the situation that existed before Obergefell. Crucially, it also does the same for religious people who feared the state would use its power to make them accept something which their consciences could not. As divides over economic policy have narrowed in America, the most intense political fights are over values and culture. The approach taken in the Respect for Marriage Act, where both sides work to address the other’s worst fears, is the right one.

The advance of gay marriage contains lessons for bringing about political change more generally in a system that was designed to slow it down. Americans may be persuaded to embrace change when it appears to be a mainstream, or even a conservative, choice to do so. Gay marriage used to seem weird. Then, slowly, Americans realised they had an uncle, aunt or cousin, whom they loved and wanted to be happy, who also happened to be gay. Gay people were Democrats and Republicans: among the most high-profile gay women in the country is the daughter of a particularly flinty Republican vice-president. Two years ago an openly gay man, Pete Buttigieg, ran a campaign to be the Democratic presidential candidate. The most striking aspect of that: nobody seemed to care about his sexuality. Meanwhile, public support for gay marriage has steadily increased from 27% in Gallup’s polls in 1996 to 71% now.

This made things easier for people campaigning for gay marriage. But the campaigners were also astute. Rather than present gay rights as a revolutionary change they emphasised a commitment to institutions beloved of conservatives, asking for the right to marry and to serve in the armed forces without hiding their sexuality. Patriotic gay Americans who wanted to join America’s mainstream were persuasive. Like the civil-rights campaigners of the 1950s and 1960s, gay-rights campaigners flourished by making their opponents seem the ones with an agenda to engineer society. Undoing gay marriage would now be a painfully disruptive act; keeping it has become the conservative choice.

In what other contentious areas could the same approach be tried? Perhaps campaigners for restricting gun ownership, or for doing more about climate change, could learn from those who pushed for gay marriage. Most promising of all is the campaign to end the death penalty. National public opinion has already shifted against executions in recent decades, just as ever more states have banned them (although a narrow majority of Americans still support it). Both liberals and conservatives can make strong cases for being against the state taking a life. Just as almost all European countries have ended its use (Belarus is an authoritarian hold-out), America could be on a path to doing away with executions. That, as with legalising gay marriage, could easily become the mainstream, moderate choice. It would also be a further step on the path out of America’s culture wars.

Source – The Economist