Its Goal Met, Gay-Marriage Advocacy Group Will Shut Down

This article by Jesse Bravin was originally published on July 15, 2015 in Wall Street Journal. Read the full article here.

Freedom to Marry in June scored the kind of epochal victory that advocacy groups dream of: A Supreme Court ruling declaring that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Its next act: going out of business.

“We achieved the goal we set out to do,” said Evan Wolfson, Freedom to Marry’s founder and president. Instead of becoming “an organization that flails around and figures out what to do next,” he said he would help employees find work in other “good-guy causes” and make sure the group’s records were properly archived so that other social movements could study its methods.

Last Thursday, 1,000 activists celebrated the group’s success at a party in Manhattan. “It’s wonderful to show up at a place that’s happy to be going out of business,” Vice President Joe Biden told the crowd.

The next morning, Mr. Wolfson said he and his “bleary-eyed” team met to plan the shutdown. Most of the 30 or so on staff will be gone by December, he said, while “a little rump of us” will remain to turn out the lights in February.

Scholars of social movements say it is unusual, if not unheard-of, for activist groups to pull the plug when their mission is accomplished. Far more typical is to find a new cause, said Stanford University sociologist Douglas McAdam.

“The classic study is the March of Dimes, which effectively put itself out of business by helping to end polio,” Mr. McAdam said. Rather than shut down, “they just took all of their organizational wisdom and their tried-and-true methods [of fundraising] and reoriented them from polio to birth defects.”

Founded in 2001, Freedom to Marry early on was a clearinghouse and strategy center for groups pushing for same-sex-marriage, Mr. Wolfson said. In particular it worked with four advocacy organizations involved in marriage litigation: the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. In 2010, “Freedom to Marry morphed very consciously and explicitly to becoming the actual campaign” for same-sex-marriage through a network of its own activists, Mr. Wolfson said.

From the outset, the approach impressed officials at the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, a San Francisco foundation that in 2001 awarded Mr. Wolfson a $2.5 million grant. That seed money helped attract other mainstream contributors.

Ira Hirschfield, the Haas Jr. Fund’s president, said Freedom to Marry unfolded “exactly the way Evan presented it to us,” with the only surprise being how quickly the campaign succeeded. “We never expected Freedom to Marry to have as short a lifespan as it has,” he said. But “we are delighted, and we think it makes sense for Evan to bring it to a close.”

Some say it can be risky to declare victory prematurely, citing missteps by civil-rights groups and abortion-rights supporters following major court victories.

“After Brown, the NAACP sits back on its laurels,” said Sidney Tarrow, a sociologist at Cornell University, referring to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision declaring segregated public schools unconstitutional. Opposition across the South prevented Brown’s implementation for a decade or longer in Mississippi and other states, he said.

Likewise, the abortion-rights movement acted like the game was over with the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, recognizing a constitutional right to abortion. “They had no idea they were going to be outflanked on the grass-roots,” Mr. Tarrow said, “that antiabortion groups were organizing at the church level and getting people to knock on doors.”

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, said, “If I were Evan Wolfson, I would redouble my effort” to protect the court victory.

Mr. Brown said contributions have poured in to his group since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. “The idea that we would close up shop right now?” he said. “Just like the pro-life movement in the wake of Roe, the battle has only just begun.”

Mr. Wolfson, 58 years old, predicted that other gay-rights groups would protect the newly-won right and said the movement would shift to objectives such as a federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The work of this campaign is done, even though the work of the movement is far from over,” he said.

Read the full article at Wall Street Journal.