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Evan Wolfson Headshot

Winning the Freedom to Marry? Cue the Attack on the Gays!

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Computer-generated clouds roil on an apocalyptic backdrop as fake lightning flashes. Actors stiff as zombies recite horror stories, punctuated by protestations that they are animated by love. Is this new political ad warning of the economic hardships confronting families, a call to action on health care or job loss? Is it an effort to unite Americans to help solve our shared problems?

No, it's the latest assault on gay couples seeking to build and spend their lives together in - cue spooky music - marriage

The ad was unveiled by the National Organization "for" Marriage ("NOM"), which ironically is against marriage for committed couples if they are gay. It's brought to you by the folks who brought California the 40-plus million dollar Proposition 8 attack campaign, including the same front-group for right-wing funders and church hierarchies, and the same political consultant/public relations firm. Now that the unanimous Supreme Court in Iowa and a super-majority of elected legislators in Vermont voted to end same-sex couples' exclusion from marriage in the past week, NOM and its backers are funneling the ad into states such as Maine, New Jersey, and New York — whose legislatures are all weighing the evidence that shows no good reason for denying the freedom to marry to same-sex couples.

But beware: the NOM campaign is bait-and-switch. The real agenda here is not just resistance to marriage rights, it's undermining the broader civil rights laws that ensure that we can all participate equally in society, even if other people don't like us. Though they wrap it in marriage, the opposition is actually about gay - and they are attacking the idea that civil rights laws should protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation at all.

At a time when most Americans have had their fill of years of polarization and want to see us come together to deal with the pressing problems that hurt us all, gay and non-gay, could a negative ad campaign like NOM's work? Who would buy these obvious scare-tactics?

Alas, too many. NOM's public relations roll-out has already had some temporary traction in changing the subject from the merits of the case for marriage equality to the politics of this ongoing civil rights battle. And the agenda of the groups behind NOM is even more scary than just another cruel attack on gay couples' freedom to marry. The campaign to "defend" marriage (as if marriage needed "defense" against couples seeking to marry) and to block even partnership protections for gay families masks an effort to erode the whole idea of civil rights laws.

Consider what the actors in the NOM ad pretend to be:

  • A doctor who wants to discriminate against her patients, despite civil rights laws and medical ethics that the California Supreme Court upheld - in a case having nothing to do with marriage.
  • An officer of a New Jersey group that for years voluntarily operated a beachside pavilion with special tax-breaks that required it be open to the public - but then tried to turn down a lesbian couple. The case did not turn on marriage, since New Jersey doesn't yet allow gay couples to marry, but, rather, basic civil rights laws about open access to public accommodations.
  • A Massachusetts parent who sought to dictate public school curriculum about the diverse families children will need to be aware of to thrive in a diverse world, and then wanted to remove her child from classes in a way that would have disrupted class and imposed unreasonable burdens on the school and other kids.

The law in California, as elsewhere, is that doctors can't discriminatorily refuse to treat patients — Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, gay or non-gay; that has nothing to do with marriage, and yet NOM incites fear. The law in New Jersey, as elsewhere, says that organizations running public accommodations such as restaurants or rental halls cannot discriminatorily exclude people — African American, Latino, or Asian, gay or non-gay; that has nothing to do with marriage, and yet NOM says that the discriminators are somehow the victims. The law in Massachusetts, as elsewhere, of course allows parents to teach their kids whatever they want, and even to send them to private schools or do home-schooling. The law also rightly sets rules for determining public school curriculum without having every parent, or special interest with an agenda, coming in and imposing their views on everyone else's kids — yours or mine, gay or non-gay.

These have nothing to do with marriage, and yet NOM would have public schools pretend that gay people don't exist or, even worse, teach all kids that it is okay to look down on people who are different (including the parents of some of their classmates, and even other students themselves). The Human Rights Campaign issued a thorough refutation of the ad's deceptions. In a remarkable expose, HRC's EndtheLies.org website revealed the audition tapes for the NOM's attack ad, with actors stumbling through the scripts, reciting disproven claims about gay people as a threat.

All of NOM's actors are invoking as supposed arguments against the freedom to marry examples that, as HRC puts it, "involve religious people who enter the public sphere, but don't want to abide by the general non-discriminatory rules everyone else does." But in a complicated world, where lots of people "disapprove" of other people's beliefs and lives, or race and religion, we can't allow our ability to have a job or a home, or get medical care or a marriage license, turn on whether our boss, landlord, doctor, or government clerk likes us. If we did, we'd have chaos. The point of civil rights laws is to make it possible for all of us to live together in one nation.

This past week, the Vermont legislature and the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court both offered reassurance that Americans can respect one another's religious freedom while protecting everyone's personal freedom and equality under the law. As Justice Mark Cady, a Republican appointee, explained:

[W]e give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage—religious or otherwise—by giving respect to our constitutional principles....The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past. The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.


The millions of dollars that NOM and its backers threaten to spend fostering yet another cultural and political war against gay people and threatening civil rights protections would be better spent addressing the real problems facing all our families today. What's truly scary is they don't seem to be feeling that love.