Congress is considering codifying same-sex marriage. Why has the issue became less polarized?
August 14, 2022 3:33 am
Same-sex marriage supporter Vin Testa waves a rainbow pride flag near the Supreme Court on April 28, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
While public opinion and different state laws on abortion rights are sharply dividing the country, there’s growing indication that most people agree on another once-controversial topic — protecting same-sex marriage.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted on July 19, 2022, to enshrine same-sex marriage into law with a bipartisan vote — all 220 Democratic representatives voted in favor, joined by 47 Republican colleagues.
The bill faces an uncertain fate in the closely divided Senate — so far, five Republicans out of 50 have said they would vote for it. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said the Senate will vote on the bill once it has 10 Republican votes.
I am a scholar of political behavior and history in the U.S. I believe that it’s important to understand that the bipartisan support for this bill marks a significant political transformation on same-sex marriage, which was used as a contentious point separating Democrats and Republicans roughly 15 to 20 years ago.
But over the past several years, same-sex marriage has become less politically divisive and gained more public approval, driven in part by former President Donald Trump’s general acceptance of the practice. This environment made it politically safe for nearly a quarter of Republican House members to vote to protect this right under federal law.
What makes opinions change?
Seventy-one percent of Americans say they support legal same-sex marriage, according to a July 2022 Gallup poll. In 1996, when Gallup first polled about same-sex marriage, 27% supported legalization of same-sex marriage.
What becomes, remains or ceases to be a divisive political issue in the U.S. over time depends on many factors. Changes to laws, shifting cultural norms and technological progress can all shape political controversies.
My research, for example, explores how Mormons in Utah territory — what would later become Utah state — were denied statehood by Congress until they gave up their religious belief in polygamy. Polygamy was outlawed under U.S. law, and known polygamists were excluded from voting and holding office. In the 1880s, an estimated 20% to 30% of Mormons practiced polygamy. Yet, political pressure led the Mormon Church president in 1890 to announce that polygamy would no longer be sanctioned.
More than 20 states allow discrimination in both housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation.
Respect for marriage
Some Republican leaders have grown bolder in their opposition to same-sex marriage since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.
Other Republicans have said that codifying federal law same-sex marriage is not necessary since they don’t believe the Supreme Court is likely to overturn federal protections for same-sex marriage.
Democrats first moved to protect same-sex marriage in federal law because Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion in the Dobbs case that the court should reconsider, “all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” the latter being the case that legalized same-sex marriage.
But despite public opinion polls showing that most people favor legalizing same-sex marriage — including nearly half of Republicans — the issue could still be a liability for Republican politicians. They have to answer to their core conservative constituents who largely oppose the practice. This could mean that Senate Republicans may have to consider splitting from their own base, or stepping away from moderate voters.
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Tim Lindberg is assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, Morris, a small liberal arts campus. His focus is on political behavior and political history within U.S. government. He has conducted numerous surveys of rural residents on their political views and have published articles on U.S. territorial policy.