OXON HILL, Md. — Attitudes on same-sex marriage are shifting among conservatives, echoing Americans’ changing views.
Republicans have long been identified as staunch foes, leading congressional as well as campaign battles against the idea. But at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in this Washington suburb, it was commonplace to hear activists explain same-sex marriage is not a matter for political debate.
Part of the reason is political reality — Republicans are eager not to be seen as an intolerant party — and they sense the traditional marriage side is losing.
“We keep fighting this battle and we’re not getting anywhere. Politicians are afraid of it,” said Portland, Ore.-based conservative talk show host Lars Larson.
The most obvious signal of conservative acceptance: GOProud, a group of gay and straight conservatives, was invited to the conference this year as guests after being turned down in the past.
They’ve been welcomed. “Not a single person we met or spoke with has expressed disappointment we’re here,” said co-executive director Matt Bechstein.
Recent developments as well as polls help explain the change.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a conservative Republican, last month vetoed legislation that would have allowed businesses legally to refuse to serve people for “religious freedom” reasons, effectively meaning they could refuse to deal with same-sex couples.
Last year the Supreme Court ruled the federal government could not deny benefits to same-sex couples married in states where such unions are permitted. The opinion did not deal with whether same-sex marriage was legal.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now permit same-sex marriage. Courts in more traditionally conservative states — Utah, Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas — have overturned bans on same-sex marriage. Those cases are on appeal.
Polls reflect the changing attitudes. Two summers ago, a CBS News/New York Times poll found 46 percent thought it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry, while 44 percent disagreed. Last month, support was up to 56 percent, opposition was down to 39 percent.
Politically, an ABC News/Washington Post poll Feb. 27-March 2 found the issue is unlikely to cause a political shift.
Nearly half of Americans said a candidate’s stand on gay marriage would make no difference in how they vote. One-fourth said they were less likely to back such a candidate, while 28 percent said they would be more likely to give their support.
Conservatives at the conference explained why same-sex marriage fits neatly into their philosophy of less intrusive government.
“The government doesn’t need to say who can get married and who can’t,” said Patrick Fields, a Fort Mill, S.C., high school teacher.
Fields said he came to his view a few years ago as he thought about his political priorities. “The last couple of years, I asked myself what, as a conservative, is my burning issue,” he said. “My burning issue is the size of government.”
To reduce the size of government, said Marshall Jackson, a Greenville, S.C., auto factory worker, Republicans need to win. And stressing issues like gay marriage is divisive, he said.
“It doesn’t help us to win,” Jackson said. “And without being in control, you can’t fix anything.”
The issue does retain a strong constituency. The National Organization for Marriage has a booth in the conference’s exhibit hall. Its literature implores people to “stand up, speak out and spread the word.”
The group maintains that “marriage is based on the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the reality that children need a mother and father.”
That view draws plenty of support. “Our nation was built on the word of God,” said Lydia Warren, a Nashville, Tenn., student. “If we legalize this we may as well legalize murder.”
Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, blamed the Arizona veto on “left-wing bullies.”
Reed got polite applause Friday when he criticized Republicans for not fighting hard enough against what he termed attacks on religious freedom, saying he was tired of “mushy, mealy-mouthed moderation.” He implored the crowd to fight and “save this nation.”
Maybe the issue doesn’t belong in politics, said Rick Trader, who produces the “Conservative Commandos” radio show, but he blames Democrats for keeping the issue alive. Conservatives, he said, must respond.
“Sometimes you have to have fights you don’t want to be issues,” he said. “I just argue this involves thousands of years of teachings and the guidance of God.”
Such talk, though, was largely confined to the halls. Party leaders are skittish to say much about the issue and it rarely comes up at the forums.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, was asked repeatedly how Republicans should deal with the issue. He would not answer directly, saying, “People are hungry for conservative ideas, Reaganesque ideas.”
People here want to talk about other things.
“There is credibility on both sides of the issue,” said Michi Iljazi, a communications specialist from Tampa, Fla. “A lot of young people don’t think it’s OK to tell two individuals they can’t be united if they really want to spend their lives together.”
And, noted David Deerson, campus coordinator associate for Students for Liberty, “it allows us to talk about family values.”