When Gay Marriage Debate Turns Ugly, No One Wins

charles-c-haynes Commentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Since Election Day, the Mormon church has been the target of demonstrations protesting the passage of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage in California.

Why the Mormons? Last week, gay-rights activist Dan Savage gave CNN a simple explanation: “Part of the democratic process is if you throw a punch, you’re going to have a punch thrown back.”

Fair enough. Mormon leaders should have anticipated blowback after they directed all of their California congregations to get involved in the “Yes on 8” campaign. Perhaps they didn’t foresee just how outsized the response would be: Mormons made up the lion’s share of volunteers and gave what the other side estimates as as much as $20 million. That’s impressive involvement in a state where 770,000 Mormons are a mere 2% of the population.

As a result, Mormons are taking the biggest hit from the opposition. But as protests, boycotts and blacklists targeting Mormons proliferate, it’s worth pausing to think about where this collision is headed. Are there limits to the punch and counter-punch — or is this a no-holds-barred fight, like boxing before the Queensberry rules?

Leaders on both sides are making the obligatory noises about “fighting fair,” but each accuses the other of hitting below the belt.

Prop 8 supporters point to a television ad run in the week before Election Day that depicts Mormon missionaries barging into the home of a lesbian couple. The missionaries seize wedding rings from the women, ransack the house, find a marriage certificate and tear it in half. They leave, laughing about what rights they can take away next.

Other religious groups in the “Yes on 8” coalition have expressed outrage over the “home invasion” ad, calling such tactics a form of religious bigotry and hate.

Courage Campaign, the anti-Prop 8 group that made the offending ad, defends attacks on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as fair game because of the church’s prominent role in what they see as discriminatory efforts to ban gay marriage in California and other states. The real bigots, they argue, are those who have now deprived gay and lesbian Californians of a fundamental human right.

Gay-rights groups also charge that pro-Prop 8 ads showing elementary school children learning about homosexuality and warning that churches could be forced to perform gay weddings were full of exaggerations and outright lies. Although Prop 8 supporters characterized their campaign as “pro-marriage,” say gay groups, it was actually hateful and “anti-gay.”

Both sides, of course, have a First Amendment right to make these arguments and to attack one another with zeal. Mormons or members of any other religious group are free to enter the political fray and argue vigorously for what they believe. And supporters of gay rights are just as free to fight back.

What shouldn’t get lost in the melee, however, is that fighting hate with hate can be destructive and counter-productive.

Although the protests at Mormon churches have been mostly peaceful thus far, there are scattered reports of vandals defacing church buildings and protesters hurling insults at Mormons. And earlier this month, letters filled with white powder were sent to Mormon temples in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City (which fortunately turned out to be a non-toxic substance).

Before this clash escalates further, both sides should exercise caution and reconsider their battle plans going forward.

Gay-marriage advocates not only stir up religious prejudice, but also hurt their cause with attack ads that depict Mormon missionaries as criminals. It would help ease tensions if “No on 8” leaders acknowledged that the “home invasion” ad went too far. A gay pastor quoted in The New York Times got it right: “We need to be our best selves,” she told protesters in San Francisco. “This is a movement based on love.”

At the same time, Mormon church leaders not only stir up anger, but also hurt their cause when they lend their support to campaigns that use scare tactics about homosexuality in elementary schools and misrepresent the religious-liberty threat to churches. Mormon leaders repeatedly call for Mormons to show “kindness and respect” toward people on the other side of the marriage debate. Good advice, but in my view, the “Yes on 8” campaign didn’t meet that standard.

Just who is on the side of history in the marriage debate remains to be seen. But here’s a prediction: The side that wins minds and hearts with robust but civil discourse is far more likely to prevail.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].


Mormon aid for Calif. gay-marriage ban generates complaint
Gay-rights activist accuses church of failing to report full value of work it did to support Proposition 8. 11.14.08