Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Why the change of public opinion on same-sex marriage?

Published: Sunday, April 13 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Euell Santistevan of Denver holds a rainbow flag during a protest outside the Federal Courthouse in downtown Denver on Wednesday, April 9, 2014.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

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Last week, Utahns witnessed an unprecedented event: local plaintiffs and defendants — with their respective counsel — gathered in Denver to argue whether Utah's prohibition of same-sex marriage is constitutional. It is interesting that the Utah case may be the impetus for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down or uphold the traditional definition of marriage. The politics of this issue have changed dramatically in the last decade. We offer our perspectives:

In the last several years, the country has flipped on same-sex marriage — as have a lot of politicians. In 2003, 60 percent of Americans believed that marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman. The same percentage now supports legal marriage for same-sex couples. How did this remarkable change occur so fast?

Pignanelli: "Well, I think maybe we've been out-marketed, sometimes. We've been caricatured as being anti-gay." — Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Although a Democratic lawmaker representing a blue legislative district, I supported the 1995 legislation prohibiting same-sex marriage and defended my position while running for mayor of liberal Salt Lake City. Thus, I understand the difficulty of messaging this issue — balancing a discussion of society imperatives without attacking personal lifestyles.

However, right-wing political militants adopted a clueless strategy that backfired. They attempted to scare Americans with the "gay agenda." Conversely, leftist activists coaxed gays and lesbians out of the closet knowing Americans would become comfortable with friends possessing a different sexual orientation. The louder the extremists screamed, the more citizens rejected the rhetoric as not jibing with reality.

Many initiatives prohibiting same-sex marriages included basic domestic partnership arrangements. Over time this offended the basic fairness of Americans. Further, political and religious leaders who cheated on their spouses were criticized but not demonized, as were gays and lesbians for their sexual activities. This is a hypocrisy that percolates. Polls demonstrate antagonism toward same-sex marriage nose-dived during the Great Recession. Americans were more concerned about their 401(k)s and jobs than the hitching of the gay couple next door.

Same-sex marriage advocates were armed with Hollywood and liberal media outlets. But traditionalists played into their hands by appealing to the darker fears of Americans. A Ronald Reagan optimistic approach that respected American common sense and high ideals would have delivered a different result.

Webb: Big social movements often percolate below the surface before emerging as mainstream opinion. In this case, as more and more gay people stopped hiding their sexual orientation, people discovered they’re pretty regular folks, and the walls came down. Young people, in particular, don’t know what the fuss is about.

Most fair-minded people came to understand that having same-sex attraction isn’t a perversion or character flaw and that most gay people can’t just quit “being that way.” The societal change certainly took the political world by surprise. Remember, only a very short time ago liberal luminaries like President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed same-sex marriage.

As I've written previously, I have wonderful friends, neighbors and fellow church members who are gay. I've had many heartfelt discussions with them and I have great empathy for their feelings and challenges. We should all fight discrimination in housing and employment, and civil unions should be recognized.

But, personally, I draw the line with formal marriage, both for practical and religious reasons. Marriage isn’t just about two people falling in love and wanting support and fulfillment in each other — although that’s an important part. Traditionally, for centuries, marriage has been inextricably associated with family, with bearing and raising children, creating a little foundational unit of society which, if it functions well, then all of society does well.

Heaven knows that family is hard to do well, even in the best of circumstances. No one does family perfectly, and most traditional families struggle in one way or another, and single mothers and fathers struggle even more.

So my question to my gay friends is, can you do family? Can you do it well? Can you remain devoted to each other, can you raise children and teach them proper values and be there to wipe runny noses and change dirty diapers and deal with rebellious teens and teach responsibility and values and hard work and homework and self-confidence, and be wonderful grandparents — and so forth?

I have no doubt that many of you can, and some of you are already doing it.

But it’s a grand, untested, social experiment because it really hasn’t been done broadly, and we’re messing here with the foundational unit of society. If it doesn’t work out, then the family will further erode and society will suffer.

Traditional marriage and traditional families have been society’s bedrock. I believe the judicial and political stars are aligned, and we’re about to try something different. I really hope it works out, but it will be decades before we know.

What are the political ramifications for Republicans and Democrats, especially in Utah?

Pignanelli: This issue is nitroglycerin for both parties. Democrats must be careful — a majority of Utahns support civil unions, but not same-sex marriages. Sympathy for gay couples seeking wedding vows is growing every day with younger Mormons. So Republicans must also exercise caution.

Webb: Most Utahns will continue to support traditional marriage, but most won’t be anti-gay. As courts and legislative branches across the country recognize same-sex marriage, government will no longer be the enforcer of traditional marriage. Some churches may opt to get out of the marriage business, so that civil marriage becomes a secular, government event.

Last week, the CEO of a high-tech company was ousted because he supported California’s 2008 Proposition 8 supporting traditional marriage. Is this a harbinger of things to come?

Pignanelli: Even liberals decried this blemish on free speech. But poor messaging by prominent traditionalists generated enough animosity that "enlightened progressive” members can exercise intolerance toward those with differing opinions.

Webb: If gay activists want tolerance, they need to practice it. They damaged their own cause by being too militant and attacking a good person who didn’t agree with them.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D’Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com

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