By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 6:41 AM
While many conservative organizations immediately decried a federal judge's decision last week to invalidate the federal ban on recognizing gay marriages, tea party groups have been conspicuously silent on the issue.
The silence is by design, activists with the loosely affiliated movement said, because it is held together by an exclusive focus on fiscal matters and its avoidance of divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Privately, though, many said they back the decision because it emphasizes the legal philosophy of states' rights.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro in Boston struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which for federal purposes defines a marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Tauro agreed with Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley that marriages should be defined by the state, and that the law violated the Constitution's 10th Amendment, which grants to states jurisdiction over matters not explicitly given to the federal government.
"I do think it's a state's right," said Phillip Dennis, Texas state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. The group does not take a position on social issues, he said, but personally, "I believe that if the people in Massachusetts want gay people to get married, then they should allow it, just as people in Utah do not support abortion. They should have the right to vote against that."
Everett Wilkinson, state director for the Florida Tea Party Patriots, agreed: "On the issue [of gay marriage] itself, we have no stance, but any time a state's rights or powers are encouraged over the federal government, it is a good thing."
That view is perhaps not surprising, considering the strong libertarian strains within the tea party movement. One of the nation's best-known libertarians, Bob Barr, has opposed the Defense of Marriage Act over his concern that it violated states' rights -- a notable about-face, considering that Barr wrote the DOMA legislation in 1996 when he was a Republican congressman from Georgia.
Tea party activists have also embraced the 10th Amendment as a symbol of their opposition to what they believe is the outsized role taken on by the federal government.
The large tea party-affiliated organizations, including FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Nation, declined to comment on Tauro's ruling because of their groups' fiscal focus. "That's just not something that's on our radar," said Judson Phillips, founder of the Tea Party Nation. He acknowledged, however, that some in his group -- though not a majority -- are opposed to the Defense of Marriage Act.
The situation is perhaps different in South Florida, where Wilkinson said "several hundred" of the group's supporters are gay. "Our stance might be different than someone who's in Oklahoma," he said.