Neil Macdonald: Republican response on gay marriage a spectacular display of intolerance
Wisely, House Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership on Wednesday resisted the politician’s natural attraction to swarms of television cameras.
Shortly after the Supreme Court issued what amounted to a judicial declaration of equality for gay Americans wishing to marry, Boehner issued a short, restrained statement.
He expressed disappointment in the decision — Republicans want marriage defined as between one man and one woman — but noted that it was the result of "checks and balances" within the American government.
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In other words, Boehner understands this nation practises constitutional democracy, not majoritarianism. Legislators here are limited by the constitution, and the constitution is interpreted by the courts.
But Boehner’s statement was no sooner in the hands of the press corps than out marched 11 of his caucus members, determined to change the party message.
What followed was a spectacular display of intolerance from a fading era, as the hardline rump of the GOP emerged once again as its public brand.
Their main point: the Supreme Court had no authority to overturn the euphemistically titled Defence of Marriage Act, which denied a range of federal benefits and privileges to gay citizens legally married in the 13 states (plus the District of Columbia) that allow it.
DOMA, as it is known, was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton 17 years ago. Clinton has since repudiated it, as the public has grown ever more tolerant of gay rights. Republicans have not.
Rep. Stephen Scalise of Louisiana stepped up Wednesday to set the tone.
"It’s a sad day when unelected judges change the definition of marriage and turn their backs on the will of voters and … their elected representatives," he declared. Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania then accused the Supreme Court of wanting "to dictate to the American people what elected legislators can do."
"We see a Supreme Court that is out of control, that will override voters’ wishes," said Rep. Randy Weber of Texas.
"The people have final say on such matters," thundered Scott Garrett of New Jersey.
Well, no, they don’t, as Boehner noted in his statement. The Supreme Court is supposed to override the wishes of voters, or their elected officials, if those wishes offend the constitution, which is exactly what the court ruled DOMA did.
An earlier Supreme Court did the same in 1954 when it forced the board of education in Topeka, Kansas, to desegregate. Back then, most Southern voters supported Jim Crow laws, and so did their politicians.
Consistency, though, is not something that hobbles the Republican rump.
The very same group railing about unelected judges Wednesday wanted those same unelected judges last year to overturn another law passed by Congress: President Obama’s sweeping health-care reform.
They also seemed unbothered on Tuesday, when those unelected judges weakened a key piece of civil rights legislation passed by Congress, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But on to the outraged 11’s second point: Gay marriage is unnatural, and bad for children, and undermines the very existence of American society.
"Marriage has been debased by this decision, and the moral fibre of our country is affected greatly," said Doug Lamalfa of California, adding that churches will now somehow be forced to "perform things that they are against."
Redefining marriage, declared Louie Gohmert of Texas, is "usually tried at the end of a great civilization." It’s a common, incomprehensible right-wing theme: Gay marriage will ultimately overwhelm and destroy heterosexual marriage.
Unfortunately for Republicans, most Americans seem to think differently. Poll after poll nowadays suggests the Supreme Court was perfectly in line with public opinion on the issue.
Which probably explains why Boehner and other GOP leaders, who’d like to win some swing ridings in the midterm elections next year, remained relatively mute on Wednesday.
The third point of the angry 11: The Supreme Court is ungodly.
"What we now have," said Gohmert, "is a holy quintet who goes against the laws of nature and nature’s God."
The quintet would be the court’s four liberal judges, plus Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing-voter who wrote the DOMA decision. Nature’s God would be the Christian God.
Marriage "is something God created," said Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. "That is something God will define. The Supreme Court, though they may not think so, have not yet arisen to the level of God."
That would be the view of many evangelicals. Several other church groups, though, supported the court’s decision. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., rang its bells in celebration.
And in any event, it’s settled law in America that church and state are strictly separated.
But the 80-plus members of the Republican rump regard "moderate" as a pejorative term.
They’ve seen to it that the House hasn’t passed a single piece of substantive legislation this session, including initiatives supported by Boehner.
They’ve reveled in attempts to repeal Obamacare (37 times so far) and they’ll no doubt attempt to thwart the bipartisan immigration reform legislation on its way from the Senate.
John Boehner and the Republican leadership might want to court the powerful Latino vote if that’s what it takes to achieve power, but not the rump.
The path to power, the rumpers insist, is not to change the party’s positions, but to explain them better.
Boehner evidently thinks otherwise. On Thursday, he told reporters he has no plans to re-draft the Defence of Marriage Act, as much as the rumpers might want to do battle.
Democrats, meanwhile, regard the rump with a shrug, and probably even some quiet gratitude.
Asked at a news conference Wednesday to react to Michele Bachmann’s comments about the Supreme Court’s lack of deference to God, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi replied, with a wide smile: "Who cares?"
A giggle ran through the room.