Same-Sex Marriage Supporters Looking for Conservative Support

Author: Andrew Joseph
Publication: National Journal
Publication Date: November 3rd, 2011

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Ahead of today's Senate Judiciary Committee mark-up of legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, the group Freedom to Marry has been holding closed-door "salons" over the past few weeks, trying to build a broad coalition in support of same-sex marriage.

The salons are designed to bring together groups of politically likeminded strategists, consultants and others who support same-sex marriage or are on the fence to discuss the issue and how to make it a reality. There was a salon on Oct. 11 for center-right politicos and one on Oct. 19 for Republicans, which brought together about 20 people at each gathering. Freedom to Marry wouldn't say who was there. There is a salon for Democrats on Nov. 16.

The Respect for Marriage Act, the bill that would repeal 1996's DOMA, has little if any chance of passing this Congress, but advocates are hoping to form a wave of support that will eventually lead to the end of DOMA and return the decision on marriage to states.

"The more people talk about this and think about it, the more they understand the denial is wrong," Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson said.

The salons are also meant to show conservatives that support gay marriage they are not alone. Getting them to support the issue publicly, though, is another story.

"Reaching out to the right, it's a different animal," said Nicole Neily, the executive director of the fiscally conservative Independent Women's Forum and one of the leaders of the third-party salon.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview with Vermont Public Radio last week that Republicans have told him in private they are not ready yet to repeal DOMA, but that they know it will happen sooner or later.

Margaret Hoover, the conservative commentator who helped lead the center-right salon, said the conversation there revolved around the conservative case for gay marriage and how to build conservative support for it. She acknowledged that Republican lawmakers are wary of supporting same-sex marriage, but said there was "really significant change happening within the party."

compilation of polls promoted by Freedom to Marry shows more and more people support gay marriage every year and that now even a majority of Independents are for it. But large majorities of Republicans remain opposed, putting political pressure on GOP lawmakers who support same-sex marriage to keep mum on the topic. (Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida is the lone Republican cosponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act out of the more than 150 cosponsors in the House and Senate.)

Democrats acknowledge the Respect for Marriage Act isn't going to get passed this Congress, but conversations like those at the salons help bring the day that DOMA gets repealed closer, supporters said.

"If we don't bring these issues up, if we don't bring them up and have votes, then nothing ever happens," Leahy told VPR.