Religious Conservatives Cheer Ruling on Gays as Wake-Up Call

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

The New Jersey court decision that gay couples are entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples was bad news for social conservatives -- the bad news they were hoping for.

"Pro-traditional-marriage organizations ought to give a distinguished service award to the New Jersey Supreme Court," said the Rev. Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Land and other conservative religious leaders predicted that the court's 4 to 3 ruling, which was handed down Wednesday, would boost turnout of social conservatives in the midterm elections, particularly in the eight states that have constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage on the Nov. 7 ballot.

"I have to think there are Democratic strategists out there thinking the words of the old Japanese admiral: 'I fear all we've done is wake a sleeping giant,' " said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based advocacy group. "They were coasting into an election with a Republican base with dampened enthusiasm. This brings it all back home to the base, what this election is about."

President Bush, at fundraising events in Iowa and Michigan, denounced the New Jersey ruling and called heterosexual marriage "a sacred institution."

Before the New Jersey decision, conservative religious groups tried to rally their supporters around the issue of same-sex marriage, but with far less success than they had in the 2004 elections.

Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, for example, held "Stand for the Family" rallies in three cities in September and October, drawing considerably smaller crowds than anticipated. The first rally, in Pittsburgh on Sept. 20, attracted 3,000 people to a 17,000-seat arena that Focus on the Family had predicted would be full.

The next two rallies, in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 3 and Nashville on Oct. 16, were moved from stadium-size venues to smaller auditoriums, and the tickets, which had been on sale for $7, were given away. Each event also drew about 3,000 people, according to Focus on the Family spokesman Paul Hetrick.

"We don't gauge the success by the number of people," Hetrick said, adding: "I don't think it's the rallies [that flopped]. I just think it's more of a challenge to enthuse people about midterm elections."

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a group that supports same-sex marriage, said religious conservatives "have gone to this well too many times, and people are not buying it."

"They attack gay people when the sun rises, and they attack gay people when the sun sets, so no matter what the court had done in New Jersey, they would have said Americans need to shift their attention from the real threats to our country to the alleged threat from gay couples seeking to settle down," Wolfson said.

New Jersey's Supreme Court stopped short of requiring the state to allow same-sex marriage. It said that under the state's constitution, same-sex couples can no longer be denied the rights and benefits that opposite-sex couples receive. It gave the state legislature 180 days to craft a solution, which apparently could include allowing civil unions.

Land said conservative voters were more energized about same-sex marriage in the 2004 elections because Massachusetts had just become the first -- and so far only -- state to legalize it as a result of a state court ruling in 2003.

Since then, opponents of same-sex marriage have been on a roll. Twenty states have passed constitutional amendments banning it. Several courts, most recently in the states of Washington and New York, have ruled against it. Those victories, Land said, may have made some conservatives complacent.

"But whatever wind was pumped out of their sails has now been pumped back in," he said. "I frankly was amazed that the New Jersey judges issued their decision before the election."

Perkins agreed, saying that he "had long anticipated a bad ruling from New Jersey" and was glad that it occurred in time for voters to see the "very real and present danger" that same-sex marriage could spread. He spoke by telephone shortly before holding a news conference to denounce the New Jersey decision in South Dakota, one of the eight states with marriage amendments on the ballot. The others are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

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