General Articles

The Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage: Their Bark may be Worse than their Bite

Leadership on the Christian far-right is energetically encouraging Christians to advocate against civil recognition of same-sex marriage, which they describe as a "devastating and potentially fatal blow to the traditional family"1 and the "downfall of Western civilization."2

"The outreach to people in the pews has been more intensive than anything I can recall," said Maurice Cunningham, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, in an interview with The Boston Globe.3 This call to battle, however, has not resulted in an outcry to policymakers in Washington. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a predominant conservative Christian advocacy group, commented on the lack of letters, e-mails, and phone calls in support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He said, "Standing on Capitol Hill listening, you don’t hear anything."4

Directives from far-right leadership are cutting across a wide range of Christian communities, but the Catholic hierarchy has been particularly active. Catholic bishops, for example, have been outspoken in their opposition to same-sex marriage, sending a 1-million-piece mailing to Catholic homes urging priests to deliver homilies and prayers on the subject and appearing at rallies to encourage parishioners to lobby their local legislators.5 The Massachusetts Catholic Conference is sending letters to all 710 parishes in the state urging Catholics to "share their profound disappointment" with lawmakers who did not vote to ban same-sex marriage earlier this year and to offer their "highest praise" for lawmakers who opposed same-sex marriage during this spring’s Constitutional Convention.6

Despite these efforts, the expected outpouring of support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages (the Federal Marriage Amendment) has not happened. "So far, it’s really been a top-down issue," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage who has used his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights to hold three hearings on the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment.7

Family Research Council’s Perkins and others claim that conservative people of faith are "indeed outraged," but they excuse the lack of action by claiming that people are "in shock" over recent advancements, are concentrated on state-level action against same-sex marriage, or are distracted by the war in Iraq and other issues.8

Some faith leaders agree that issues other than same-sex marriage are of pressing concern to conservative communities of faith, but it is also unclear if conservative Christians are as "outraged" as far-right leaders say they are. In a recent poll of 1,610 self-identified Evangelical Christians, 30 percent were in favor of a law allowing same-sex couples to marry. Of those Evangelical Christians who did oppose equal marriage rights, 57 percent preferred that same-sex marriage be addressed through state laws rather than a constitutional amendment.9

In an interview with The Washington Post, the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of Call to Renewal, a coalition of religious groups devoted to fighting poverty, said he believes the Christian right is "out of touch" with most Christians’ concerns. He asked, "Do we really think that Jesus’s primary concern in this election year would be a marriage amendment? With the poverty rate rising, with one in six of all U.S. children and one in three children of color living below the poverty line, with more than a billion people around the world living on less than $1 a day?"10 He added that "the religious right is not even a majority among evangelicals, but they have very loud voices that presume to speak for a lot more people than they really do."11

Some religious leaders go even further than Wallis, arguing that legal marriage is a civil institution and access to it should not be defined or limited because of religious strictures. In early June, representatives from over two dozen major denominations and other religious groups signed a joint letter to Congress urging the defeat of the Federal Marriage Amendment. Signatories include the Alliance of Baptists, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Episcopal Church, USA. This letter states, "Regardless of judicial and legislative decisions defining the legal rights of gay couples, religious marriage will justly remain the prerogative of individual faith traditions in accordance with their doctrinal beliefs. And this is as it should be. It is not the task of our government and elected representatives to enshrine in our laws the religious point of view of any one faith. Rather, our government should dedicate itself to protecting the rights of all citizens and all faiths."12

The disconnect between far-right leadership and Christian communities does not necessarily mean that securing equal rights for same-sex couples will be easy. "For now it seems that individuals at the grassroots level who personally oppose same-sex marriage are not actively engaging, but advocates for equal marriage rights cannot afford to rest. Concern for U.S. involvement in Iraq and the struggling domestic economy may offer only a temporary distraction, shielding same-sex marriage from active, broad-based opposition. The threat to same-sex couples comes from the extremist right-wing leadership that has the ear of this Administration," said Bill Smith, director of public policy at SIECUS.

In related actions, far-right leadership is targeting other areas to advance their agenda. For example, Public Advocate of the United States, an organization that describes itself as the "leader in the fight for family values and against the radicals in the homosexual lobby who wish to tear down the American family,"13 wrote a letter to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) titled "Notification of Potential Fraudulent Tax Scheme." The letter warns of "recent practices, in certain jurisdictions throughout the United States-including specifically San Francisco, California-of rebellious state and local officials reportedly permitting persons of the same sex to marry in flagrant disobedience of applicable laws defining marriage as a union between a male and a female." It goes on to say, "where there is a tax benefit to be had, persons other than lawfully married ‘husbands’ and ‘wives’ claiming to be married could be an effort to avail themselves of federal tax benefits to which they are not entitled, and would be blatantly illegal. This kind of activity could mushroom into a dangerous tax scam throughout the United States." The letter claims that the "aggregate impact of such a scheme on the federal government, the loss of revenues to the federal government from federal income taxes clearly would be substantial." Public Advocate encourages the IRS to prosecute "individuals who participate in such unlawful activity to the fullest extent of the law."15 The Congressional Budget Office, however, recently released an analysis showing that recognizing marriages of same-sex couples would be beneficial to the federal budget, generating a $1 billion annual increase in revenue.16

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) responded that "only married individuals," as defined under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, "could elect to file a joint tax return."17 Passed in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) states, "the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."18 Consequently, according to the IRS, "Even though a state may recognize a union of two people of the same sex as a legal marriage for the purposes within that state’s authority, that recognition has no effect for purposes of federal law."19

For its own part, the Bush Administration is seeking support for its campaign against same-sex marriage from conservative Christian leadership. For example, President Bush recently met with Vatican officials to discuss "shared priorities." When asked whether Bush specifically requested Vatican support in opposing same-sex marriage, White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded: "The positions of the president and the Vatican are well known on those issues… I would just leave it at that."20

More information at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.


  1. J. Dobson, "Eleven Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage," Focus on the Family, March 14, 2004. Accessed on-line. (Dr. Dobson is the author of Marriage Under Fire: Why We Must Win This Battle.)
  2. A. Cooperman, "Foes Confounded by Limited Outcry Against Gay Marriage," Washington Post, June 20, 2004. Available on-line.
  3. R. Lewis and M. Paulson, "Church gives pre-election scorecard Gay marriage votes identified in mailings," Boston Globe, June 15, 2004. Available on-line.
  4. A. Cooperman.
  5. R. Lewis and M. Paulson.
  6. Ibid.
  7. A. Cooperman.
  8. Ibid.
  9. J. Duin, "Evangelicals prefer that states outlaw gay ‘marriage’," Washington Times, April 14, 2004. Available on-line.
  10. A. Cooperman.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Joint Letter to Congress, June 2, 2004. Available on-line.
  13. Public Advocate of the United States Homepage.
  14. Letter from Eugene A. Delgaudio, President of Public Advocate to Hon. Mark W. Everson, Commissioner of Internal Revenue, IRS, April 14, 2004. Available on-line.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Human Rights Campaign Press Release, "HRC Lauds Government Report: Recognition of Marriage for Same-Sex Couples Would Benefit Federal Budget," Tuesday, June 22, 2004. Available online.
  17. "IRS to Public Advocate: No Filing ‘Married’ For Same Sex Couples," Public Advocate, June 14, 2004. Accessed on-oline.
  18. Defense of Marriage Act, Public Law 104-199.
  19. "Married Gays May Not File Jointly, Says IRS," United Press International, June 14, 2004. Available on-line.
  20. "Bush, Vatican discussed ‘shared priorities’," Catholic World News, June 14, 2004. Available on-line.