A panel of top political commentators joins Diane to talk about some of the head spinning events of this last year and to get their perspectives on the challenges ahead.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Wedding bells rang for more than 800 same-sex couples in New York yesterday. New York became the sixth and largest state to allow gay marriage. Activists say it could be a belweather for other states. A recent Gallup poll shows 53 percent of Americans support allowing gay couples to marry. That’s double the percentage 15 years ago, when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act. Now President Obama has called on Congress to repeal the law, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. On Friday, he certified the end of the Pentagon policy preventing gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. A panel discusses A panel discusses recognition of gay couples and changing public policy.
- Lanae Erickson Deputy director, Third Way’s Social Policy & Politics Program
- Michael Dimock Associate director, Pew Research Center
- Peter Sprigg Senior fellow for policy studies, Family Research Council
- Mary Bonauto Director, Civil Rights Project, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD)
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on vacation. Fifteen years ago, Congress passed a law defining marriage under federal law as the union between one man and one woman. Yesterday, New York State joined five other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex couples to marry.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me to discuss how Americans' views and public policies toward gay men and lesbians has changed in the past decade are Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center, Lanae Erickson of Third Way and Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. LANAE ERICKSONThank you and good morning.
MR. MICHAEL DIMOCKThank you.
MR. PETER SPRIGGThank you.
PAGEWe're going to be joined later in this hour by your calls and comments. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850, or reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your emails. Or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, when New York State allowed same-sex marriage as of yesterday, that instantly doubled the number of Americans who live in states where gay marriage is legal.
PAGEAnd the New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said yesterday that he thought this would be a bellwether for other states, that it will boost momentum for passage of same-sex marriage in other states. Lanae, do you think that's the case?
ERICKSONAbsolutely. Thank you so much for having me. The events in New York are really historic for a couple of reasons, one of which you already pointed to. It's a very large state. And now, 11 percent of the country lives in a state where gay and lesbian couples can marry. But also the events in New York are historic because they were bipartisan. It was a bipartisan bill that was passed.
ERICKSONAnd, in fact, it was a Republican-controlled Senate in New York that passed the marriage bill. It also included extensive religious liberty protections, which I think were negotiated by Gov. Cuomo in a very particular way to make sure that all New Yorkers had their religious liberty protected. And so, yeah, I think this is a bellwether that we are moving forward.
ERICKSONAnd there is an immense amount of momentum as we look to future states that are going to pass this bill.
PAGEWell, Peter, what do you think? Is New York a bellwether for other states?
SPRIGGWe've been hearing for the last decade of different events that were supposed to be the bellwether for same-sex marriage to sweep the nation, and it hasn't happened. The first was the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. And then there were no other states that -- where same-sex marriage became legal in the next four years.
SPRIGGThen it was the legalization of same-sex marriage by a court, again, in California, the largest state in the country. That was reversed by the voters in November of 2008. So, you know, it's continually been one step forward, one step back for the advocates of same-sex marriage. But we have to face the fact that 31 out of 31 states, where the people have been able to decide, have voted in favor of a traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
PAGESo these will be cases where you have voter initiatives and ballot measures...
PAGE...in which people have voted. You know, we're going to take just a moment to talk to a couple we have on the line from New York City. Anthony Underwood and Josh Davis, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. ANTHONY UNDERWOODHi. Thank you.
MR. JOSH DAVISThanks for having us.
PAGENow, I understand you were planning to get married in Connecticut, although you're New Yorkers. Now, you've changed those plans. What are you doing?
UNDERWOODWell, we did have everything arranged in Connecticut long before this was even a remote possibility here in New York. But after the historic vote here, we decided to cancel all of the plans, all of the deposits that we have put down in Connecticut and move everything here to New York City. So this September, we'll be doing it here in our home state.
PAGESo why does it matter to you whether you get married in Connecticut or in New York?
DAVISWell, I think there's just something about not having to travel to get this right that makes you feel at home and makes you feel part of a community. It's just -- it's heartwarming. It's just feels right.
PAGEWhat kind of reaction have you gotten from your friends, family members, neighbors to the fact that you're planning this wedding?
UNDERWOODWe've been incredibly fortunate from the beginning. We're surrounded by family and friends who were very supportive from the get-go, people who were coming from all over the country, all over -- a few even from out of the country to come to the wedding. They were willing to trek out to Connecticut, even though they were all getting hotels here in New York City.
UNDERWOODIt's about an hour away as -- where we were originally planning it, but they're very excited to not have to do that. And they also feel the pride that we do, just being able to say that we are recognized the same as any of they -- or any of them would be in their home state. To have that feeling here in our home state, they can understand that.
PAGEAnd one last question, what's your sense on public attitudes toward gay men and lesbians and toward the idea of gay marriage? Is it a New York particular thing? I mean, New York is a pretty liberal state. Or do you think there is something happening nationwide?
DAVISI think there is something happening nationwide, and I think it's more a generational thing. And I think the younger and younger you get, the more normal the idea of homosexuality becomes. And I think that, you know, soon we will have a nationwide legalization of gay marriages.
PAGEAll right. Anthony Underwood and Josh Davis, thanks so much for joining us and best wishes with your wedding in September.
UNDERWOODThank you so much.
PAGEMichael, tell us what -- let me ask you the question I just asked them. Is there something happening of any kind, a fundamental shift, in terms of public attitudes?
DIMOCKThis has been one of the longest, steadiest changes in public attitudes we've seen. In other words, there haven't been real bellwether moments that have dramatically changed the public's views on issues related to homosexuality. It's just been a long, gradual increase in support for things like gay marriage, gay adoption, service in the military, various issues related to that. It's been a long, slow change.
PAGEWell, talk -- thinking about gay marriage, why do you think there have been changes in public attitudes? I know the most recent Pew Research on this indicated that a majority of Americans now support the idea of same-sex marriage.
DIMOCKRight. We're finding majorities now say that gay -- homosexuality is something that should be accepted by society. Our poll has, now, a divide on gay marriage. Other polls have small majorities in favor of gay marriage, depends a little bit how you ask the question. A lot of it is generational, that younger generations really don't see this as an issue. It's very broadly accepted.
DIMOCKSo as that generations grow, they take up a larger share of the electorate. That's a big part of this change. But even within generations, you're seeing some changes in people's attitudes. Folks, as they've gotten older, as times have changed, they become a little bit more accepting of various issues related to homosexuality.
PAGEAnd Peter mentioned that there has been -- on the cases where there have been valid initiatives, gay marriage has never been approved. It's -- and bans on gay marriage generally -- I think, not in every case, but in most cases on ballot initiatives, have not been approved.
SPRIGGWell, all 31 states that have voted -- in the case of Arizona, they voted against the marriage amendment the first time, but they voted in favor of one the second time.
PAGESo if a majority of Americans, in fact, feel this way, why did these ballot initiatives keep getting approved that would ban same-sex marriage?
DIMOCKMm hmm. Well, I think gay marriage is still a very divisive issue. You have about as many people opposed as in favor. There are a lot of -- I think there are clear majorities of Americans now who say, let people do what they want to do. The issue of legalization of marriage still sends some people the other way. There are some people who are like, I don't care how people want to live their lives, but why does it have to be marriage?
DIMOCKAnd there are some people who still back away from that kind of legal definition. And that's why I think you get some of this divisiveness or sort of evenly-divided, very close votes in a lot places on these issues. But there's also still a little bit of an intensity imbalance. There's a little bit more strong opposition than strong support. But that's a very big change over time, where it's about even now in terms of the percent who strongly favor as strongly oppose.
DIMOCKAs recently as 2004, you had five or six times as many people strongly opposing and strongly favoring gay marriage. So that's a huge change in the balance of intensity, which really matters when you're talking about ballot initiatives and things like that.
PAGEAs we've seen on issues like abortion, that can make a real difference.
ERICKSONWell -- and most of these ballot initiative votes were in the past 10 or 15 years. They haven't been in the past year or two years, with the exception of Maine. And so you can see the seismic shift that our country has really taken in that period of time. We looked at whether relationship recognition laws had changed since the passage of the Defensive Marriage Act in 1996.
ERICKSONAnd in 1996, only 13 million Americans lived in a location that had any kind of relationship recognition law for gay and lesbian couples. And now, 143 million Americans live in a place that recognizes gay couples in some way. That's 46 percent of the country. So we're seeing a very rapid and very big shift. And I think part of the reason is that Americans now see gay and lesbian people as part of their community and not as outsiders.
ERICKSONSo the number of people who know a gay or lesbian person has increased from 42 percent in 1996 to 77 percent today. If you ask people whether a gay couple raising a child together constitutes a family, less than a third said it did in 1996. And now, over two-thirds say that's a family. So I think our viewpoints and our understanding of who gay couples are has really transformed.
PAGENow, Peter, your group, the Family Research Council, and other social conservatives oppose same-sex marriage. Tell us why.
SPRIGGWell, I believe that marriage -- we have to ask ourselves, what is the public purpose of marriage? Why is marriage treated as a public institution rather than a purely private relationship? And I think the answer to that question, the logical answer, is that marriage is treated as a public institution because it brings together men and women for the reproduction of the human race, and to keep together a man and woman to raise to maturity the children produced by their union.
SPRIGGAnd the social science now confirms that children who are raised by their own biological mother and father, committed to one another in a lifelong marriage, are happier, healthier and more prosperous than children in any other setting.
PAGENow, in terms of attitudes toward gay men and lesbians and the role they might play in other avenues of public life, like in the military service, do you think there have been changes in the views of social conservatives on that front, even while opposition to gay marriage remains? Or do you think there has not really been any changes?
SPRIGGWell, I don't think there have been significant changes in the views of true social conservatives. Certainly, there have been gradual changes in public attitudes as a whole. And I have to say that, given that the news media, the entertainment media and academia are heavily in favor of homosexual political agenda, it's not surprising there would be changes. That's most of the messaging that people hear.
SPRIGGNevertheless, you know, I think the people who are not strongly in either side are somewhat conflicted because maybe they do know people who are gay and lesbians. They do have friends or neighbors who are gay and lesbian, and they don't feel badly towards those people. But we need to understand that it's not a question of whether you're persecuting homosexuals. It's a question of what serves the public interest.
PAGEThat's Peter Sprigg. He's senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. We're going to take a short break. After that, we'll take some of your calls, read some of your emails and continue our conversation about changing attitudes on sexual orientation. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. And with me in the studio, Michael Dimock -- he's associate director for the Pew Research Center -- Lanae Erickson, deputy director of Third Way's Social Policy & Politics Program, and Peter Sprigg with the Family Research Council. Lanae, we had Peter talk about why social conservatives oppose same-sex marriage and talked about a homosexual political agenda. How do you see it?
ERICKSONWell, I think there are always going to be some people in this country who are going to oppose allowing gay marriage or allowing gay couples to marry. But that's why we have really robust religious liberty protections. That's why we have to carefully craft this legislation to make sure that those people don't have to contravene their own beliefs, but denying gay couples marriage doesn't actually promote stability for kids of straight couples.
ERICKSONIn fact, there are a lot of kids who live with gay couples. And the -- allowing the protections of marriage and the public commitment that marriage entails gives those children stability as well.
PAGEAnd, of course, Peter cited the fact that a lot of -- the public votes on same-sex marriage have gone against gay marriage in favor of constitutional bans. Lanae, you noted that those votes, many of them were in the past before we've seen this big shift in public attitudes. Where are the votes coming up that we should be watching for? The states are still going to be considering this issue.
ERICKSONWell, in the next few years, Maryland is going to be considering this issue. Again, they tried this year and were not successful, but I think that'll be coming up again. And Gov. O'Malley has said that he's going to take that issue on and make sure that the religious liberty protections are there to be able to pass that bill. Oregon is looking to the future, and so is -- are states like Washington and California, states like Rhode Island. So there are quite a few on the horizon in the next few years.
PAGESo those are states that would be voting to legalize same-sex marriage. Peter, what about states that might be voting to ban or to put amendments in their state constitutions?
SPRIGGWell, there is one more marriage amendment that is already headed for the ballot. That's in Minnesota, where it will be on the ballot next year. And there are legislatures that are working on it. I believe Indiana has cast a vote in favor of it, but it has to be passed by the next legislature as well. So it wouldn't go on the ballot until 2014. And a couple of other states, North Carolina, they're looking at it, New Hampshire, possibly putting something on the ballot.
PAGESo for social conservatives on the range of issues that you deal with, like abortion rights and gay marriage and other things, where is same-sex marriage? Is it your top priority? Is it a secondary priority?
SPRIGGWell, it's a very high priority. But it's -- because the movement to radically change the definition of marriage has been so aggressive. So we consider this a defensive battle very much, not an offensive battle. We're simply trying to preserve the definition of marriage that has prevailed in virtually all of human history until, literally, the last decade.
SPRIGGAnd so, you know, we think it's important that the definition of marriage, the union of a man and a woman, serves a vital function. And if we change that definition, we will be denying the importance of men and -- male-female relationships and of mothers and fathers for children.
DIMOCKYeah, there's been -- there is still a lot of opposition to gay marriage and same-sex issues, and it's mostly concentrated among more religiously conservative, socially conservative folks. What we've been seeing over the past decade-and-a-half is an increasing partisan division over this issue. Republicans have always been more conservative on this issue than Democrats.
DIMOCKBut as the trends, over time, have moved towards support for gay marriage and other issues, the Republican Party hasn't moved much, not only politically, but even in the general public. Republicans, still, are roughly 2-1 opposed to allowing gay marriage, whereas Democrats and independents tracking with Democrats, in the other direction. So you're seeing an even wider partisan divide now than you saw 10 or 15 years ago.
PAGEWe're going to take a few minutes and talk on the phone to Mary Bonauto. She's director of the Civil Rights Project for a group called GLAD. That stands for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Mary Bonauto, thank you for joining us.
MS. MARY BONAUTOMy pleasure.
PAGESo what are some of the problems that couples who can be legally married in a place like New York or Connecticut, what are the problems they face when they go to a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage?
BONAUTOWell, marriage laws touch on virtually every area of life and death. So if you live in a state where you are married, you can be somewhat assured that you're going to have more protections as you age, protections for your family and economic stability for your -- you know, the couple and for their children. If you move to a state without marriage, you lose all those things.
BONAUTOYou lose things like the ability to have your spouse inherit without a will since most people are in denial about death and don't want to craft a will. So there's just very basic bread-and-butter kinds of protections.
BONAUTOBut, mainly, I think, even for -- just to introduce one idea, but even for couples who are married in Massachusetts now, in New York and so on, they say it's massive discrimination at the federal level because the federal government, for the first time in the history of our nation, has decided that it's going to trump state determinations of who's married and who's not, and not recognize marriages of same-sex couples.
PAGEThat would be through the Defense of Marriage Act.
BONAUTOYes. And that definitely cuts all married couples of the same-sex out of the whole federal safety net.
PAGESo what kinds of things does it affect for same-sex couples who've gotten married in a state that allows that?
BONAUTOWell, you know, there's just such a range. The federal government itself has reported that there are over 1,000 such laws that distinguish based on marital status. But, you know, if you think about seniors -- and everybody feels vulnerable as they age -- you know, there are no Social Security spousal benefits to bump up your payment to be half of that of your higher-earning spouse or any death benefits.
BONAUTOThere are some people who have pensions, where there's just an automatic continuation right for a surviving spouse after retirement, or even if they die before retirement. You know, some people try to save through IRAs. But if you're not in a marriage that the federal government recognizes and somebody leaves you an IRA, then you have to start taking distributions immediately. You get taxed on that.
BONAUTOAnd it's much harder for the money to last, you know, on things like health insurance. You know, federal employees and retirees have zero access to health insurance for their spouses. And then, even in the private sector, when you do have access to health insurance for your spouse, it's taxed as income, and it's the fair market value of that benefit.
BONAUTOAnd so, over time, you're talking about at least $1,000 extra taxes a year because you are paying taxes on a benefit that, for other people, is not considered taxable. You know, it's only married couples who are able to file their taxes as married rather than as a household -- head householders and individual. It's not savable for everybody, but it's savable when it counts. And that often means when there's a big disparity in earnings.
BONAUTOAnd that's often the case when, for example, you have somebody who's not working or is working less because they have kids or, you know, elderly parents in the home they need to take care of. And then it can be catastrophic. You know, I have one client in Massachusetts, you know, a state trooper and her spouse, and they have two children. And since they've been married, they've paid $30,000 extra in federal income taxes because the federal government doesn't respect their marriage.
BONAUTOIt's a lot of money for them. And, apparently, when you're married to a state trooper, you can't really have two people working outside the home because the state trooper can get called anytime of the day or night. And so that's -- they can't really have two incomes. So those numbers are affected...
PAGEAnytime we have a lot of marriages, we're going to have some divorces. That would be -- to be expected. Are there any additional complications now that we have a little bit of history with same-sex marriage? Any additional complications when a same-sex marriage -- married couple decides to divorce?
BONAUTOYes, there are. And, again, it's because federal tax law recognizes that -- or at least assumes that a married couple is going to be a joint economic enterprise. So one thing they do is not to inflict further pain on divorce as to make it easier to transfer assets on divorce. So when you transfer assets in a divorce, those assets are not considered taxable to the other party and so on. And that makes things much easier, particularly around a family home.
BONAUTOWhen you have a spouse who, for example, has retirement assets through work, normally those things are untouchable. But in divorce, there is a way to get an order that allows the other spouse, either immediately or upon retirement, to have some access to that retirement income that he or she really contributed to the earnings of the other.
BONAUTOSo -- and then there's alimony. And alimony is income to the person who receives it, and it's deductible to the person who pays it. And that makes it possible, of course, for somebody to receive some support and hopefully transition into a work-life if he or she needs to do that. None of those things is available. What the problem is, is that, at divorce, it just becomes very hard to fairly divide marital property because it's hard to transfer things.
BONAUTOIt's hard to divide retirement assets. It's hard to be able to compensate, you know, through alimony. So it's very difficult.
PAGERight. Mm hmm. Mary Bonauto, thank you so much for joining us.
PAGEShe is director of the Civil Rights Project for the group called GLAD. Well, the Defense of Marriage Act, Lanae, there have been proposals to try to repeal it, a hearing last week in Congress. Where does that stand?
ERICKSONSo there is a bill in both the House and the Senate that's been introduced to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. And, actually, I was at the hearing last week, and I think this goes to the point about whether opponents are shifting on this issue. In fact, there was a roomful of supporters of repeal. This was the first hearing that Congress had ever had on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, and there was a big roomful of supporters.
ERICKSONAnd only one Republican senator attended this hearing in opposition to repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. Only one Republican senator wanted to speak to these witnesses to ask them questions about this issue because, I think, opponents of marriage can really see the writing on the wall. They see that the ground is shifting quickly, and they're not sure whether this is going to be helpful to them anymore.
ERICKSONI would suspect that just a few years ago this would have been a can't-miss opportunity for a lot of Republicans to show up and question and, you know, rail against gay marriage. And that was not the case, and that was not the tone of the hearing.
PAGEWho was the one senator who did show up, the one you talked to?
ERICKSONSen. Grassley came and asked questions to the witnesses. And Sen. Hatch came and just put a statement in the record and then left.
PAGESo, Peter, is there a change of opinion now on the Defense of Marriage Act...
SPRIGG...I don't think so. With respect to that hearing, we have to remember that, with the Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, the chances of these bills passing in the current Congress are virtually zero. So I think that -- I mean, I'm disappointed that more Republicans didn't come to the hearing, too. I would have liked to see more Republicans come.
SPRIGGBut they may have felt it was a waste of time because they knew that the hearing itself was a waste of time because they knew this bill was not going to go anywhere. And I think that -- we see the Republicans standing up. I was very glad that Speaker Boehner did invoke the bipartisan legal advisory group to go to court to defend the Defense of Marriage Act against legal challenges when the Justice Department said that they would no longer defend it. So I think there is strong support for DOMA still in Congress.
PAGEAnd yet, some very senior Republicans have -- who supported DOMA originally 15 years ago, now say they're against it: Bob Barr, the congressman who spoke out for it last time, he was the original author of DOMA, Ted Olson, the former solicitor general, the former Republican national chairman, Ken Mehlman, who worked in the case in New York to get passage in the Republican-controlled state Senate. Does that indicate some kind of division now on the -- in the GOP?
SPRIGGWell, there is a libertarian wing, if you want to call it that, within the Republican Party, which is much more sympathetic towards this idea. I happen to think that that's misguided because, traditionally, the libertarian view was let's keep the government out of our bedrooms. And now, they're inviting the government into their bedrooms. I think -- I don't think it really makes sense.
SPRIGGAnd I think that when you change the definition of marriage, the inevitable result will be a growth in the size of government, which is something libertarians will not want.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michael.
DIMOCKYes. You don't have to go all the way back to '96 to see how this has changed politically. As recently as 2004, the issues surrounding gay marriage were very useful to Republicans because they really mobilized the political base. Coming in to 2004, Bush's re-election looked shaky. There were a lot of referenda. There were a lot of things that helped mobilize conservative voters. And gay marriage was a big issue that year.
DIMOCKAt that time, it divided Democrats. It didn't really divide Republicans. There was a lot of unity on this issue among Republicans. What's different today are two things. One, there is a libertarian wing, not only in the halls of Congress but in the public as well. What's unifying the Republican Party right now are economic issues and the role of government, the deficits, things like that.
DIMOCKTalking about social issues right now potentially cleaves off some of these more libertarian-minded, independent Republicans who were critical in 2010 to those election victories that they got in Congress that don't -- it's not that they necessarily are pro-gay marriage. They just don't care about this issue. And hearing their politicians talk about it is not something that's going to really get them activated and mobilized.
PAGEOr as the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who's considered a potential presidential contender, said this weekend, he didn't -- he opposed the DOMA law because he said it's a state's issue. States should be able to decide.
ERICKSONWell, and in fact, the National Journal did a poll of -- they do a regular poll of Republican and Democratic insiders in D.C. to see what issues those people think should be on the front burner. And as recently as 2009, a full majority of the Republican insiders said that their party should be opposed to marriage for gay couples. And now, 56 percent say they should avoid that issue, and only 30 percent say they should oppose it.
PAGENow, if you look at the presidential field, the current Republican presidential field, only Jon Huntsman supports even civil unions. No -- none of the Republican contenders support same-sex marriage.
DIMOCKThis is still, I think, a bit of a litmus test within the Republican Party. As I say, Republican voters haven't moved a lot on this issue in the last 10 years, so getting through a Republican primary probably still means taking conservative positions in this area. But there's a broader issue of winning general elections and thinking about what the overall image of the Republican Party is.
DIMOCKI think they found success focusing on the role of government, the size of government, dealing with deficits, being fiscally conservative. The social issue side of the broader conservative agenda was very popular and successful 10 years ago, 15 years ago. But today, it's receiving mixed results from the public.
SPRIGGWell, I would point out, though, that most people credit the Republican gains in the congressional election last year to the Tea Party movement. But if you look at polls of actual voters who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters, you find they are at least as socially conservative as the Republican Party as a whole, if not more so.
SPRIGGSo I think there are a few people who are presenting themselves as Tea Party leaders who want to run away from these issues. But the grassroots voters, actually, are quite socially conservative.
PAGEAll right. Well, Lanae, do you have something you want to say?
ERICKSONJust to add to that very quickly, I think independent voters are tracking very similar to Republican voters or had been on many issues, at least in November of 2010. But on this issue, they look like Democrats. On this issue, 59 percent of independents are supportive of allowing gay couples to marry, and I think that that's really significant.
PAGEDo you think that this will be an issue in 2012, either in local elections or maybe especially the presidential elections? Is this something we're going to be hearing a debate about, Michael?
DIMOCKI would suspect not mainly because this is not the focal issue right now, and you see this evident flow with the economy. When the economy is doing well, people are pretty comfortable with the way the system is working broadly. Issues like this come to the surface and can really grab people's attention and become hot buttons that drive -- you know, mobilize voters on different sides.
DIMOCKRight now, there's a single overriding concern among the American public across the board, and it's jobs and the economy, deficits, how we're going to turn this nation's economy around. And any politician who focuses on social issues or brings them to the forefront risks a big part of the public looking at them and saying, what are you talking about that for? Why are you making that a priority?
PAGEMichael Dimock, he's associate director of the Pew Research Center. We're also joined in the studio this hour by Lanae Erickson, deputy director of Thirds Way's Social Policy & Politics Program, and by Peter Sprigg. He's senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. We're going to take a very short break. When we come back, we'll go straight to the phones. We'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email, email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWe're talking this hour about gay marriage and changing attitudes toward sexual men and lesbians and other public policies as well. Let's go to the phone. We'll talk first to Orin. (sp?) He's calling us from Miami, Fla. Orin, hi. You're on the air.
ORINHi. Good morning.
ORINHere's my comment. I'm an executive director of a large foster care agency in Miami. And we readily place children with either straight singles, there's straight couples, there are gay singles, there are gay couples, and they parent just as well. There have been three judges in South Florida in the last two years who have authorized gay adoption.
ORINAnd the following professional organizations say gay parenting falls on the normal curve as straight parenting, which is the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, National Academy of Pediatrics and the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. They've all said that straight parenting and gay parenting both fall in the normal curve of distribution.
PAGEAnd has it been controversial at your foster care agency to place kids with gay couples?
ORINNone the least. I'm the CEO. And there was never any objections to it, either with the staff or with the judges, the supervising judges.
PAGEAll right. Well, thanks for -- thanks very much for your call.
DIMOCKYeah, I would point out, one of the concerns that's been raised with -- in the states and the jurisdictions that have legalized same-sex marriage is the loss of religious liberty for faith-based organizations, like Catholic charities, which perform adoptions, and because of their religious convictions, prefer not to place children for adoption with same-sex couples.
DIMOCKAnd so, even when there are secular alternatives available, the presence of same-sex marriage in places like Massachusetts, in the District of Columbia, has forced faith-based organizations out of the adoption business. We don't think that's right, and, you know, that's one of the concerns we have.
PAGELanae, have you seen changes also in both foster care and adoption possibilities for gay couples? Do some states allow it and some states don't?
ERICKSONYes. There are couple of states that have bans on either gay couples or gay couples adopting or gay singles adopting, like Florida, which is now moving through the courts. And there are couple of states who recently said that unmarried adults who live with another person, who are essentially cohabiting but not married, cannot adopt children.
ERICKSONAnd so that would take out gay couples and also unmarried straight couples. But I think there has been a very seismic shift on this issue as well. We've seen the same change in opinions. And, actually, there's more support for allowing gay couples to adopt than there is for marriage. And I think that's because we all understand that we think the best interest of the child should be the number one priority on this issue.
ERICKSONAnd having a blanket ban on not letting a gay person adopt doesn't suit the best interest of the child. In fact, it ties the hands of the judge who's making these determinations in his or her ability to place a child with a family member.
PAGEI know Arizona has a law that went into effect just this month that gave preference to married couples, didn't prevent unmarried couples or gay couples from adopting, but gave preference to married couples. Michael, is there polling data on this point?
DIMOCKYes, there is. And it's been tracking similarly to everything else we're talking about. In the latest poll we did this year, 35 percent said they think that allowing gays and lesbians to adopt is a bad thing for society -- 35 percent. That's down from 50 percent just four years ago. About half of Americans say it just doesn't make a difference. That's the prevailing view now, whether it's a gay couple or a heterosexual couple.
PAGEBut you still have a third of Americans saying it's a bad thing.
DIMOCKSo there is still some concern out there among a significant number of Americans.
PAGEWell, let's talk to Bob. He's calling us from Cleveland, Ohio. Bob, thanks for joining us.
BOBYeah, as far as gays in the military -- you know, I served in the military, and I served at a time when the military had a very hard time getting people. And it made us ineffective, where we couldn't train properly or anything like that. So I think if -- you know, if people -- the thing is if people want to be in the military and they're qualified to be in the military -- and I met very few conservative, right wingers when I was in the Marine Corps.
BOBThey're mostly, you know, people from, you know, working class people. And if they -- you know, if they want to -- if somebody wants to be in the military, the military needs qualified people. Because if you look at it during these wars in the Mid-East, they had to drop their recruiting standards, so they were taking people without high school diplomas. So I don't see what this opposition is.
BOBI mean, if the right wingers don't want gays in the military, then I say go down there and say no.
PAGEAll right, Bob. Thanks very much for your call, and thank you for your service to our country in the Marines. Michael?
DIMOCKThat view on gays in the military has been a prevailing view for a fairly long time now. Even back in the early '90s, when, by 2-1, people opposed gay marriage, our polling found majorities, slim majorities but majorities saying that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve in the military. That was back -- even though it was a controversial issue, obviously, in Clinton's first term, this is an issue that the public has been more on the pro side than the con side for a long time.
PAGEIn fact, we saw President Obama, just on Friday, issue the certification that means the ban -- the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy is going to be officially lifted in September. And you know what strike -- struck me about that? The lack of controversy. There was hardly even very much news coverage of the lifting of this. What does that say to you, Lanae?
ERICKSONI think it goes to the same point that folks on the -- who oppose these kinds of policies are realizing that it doesn't help them to raise these issues. You know, there have been several attempts in the House to add riders to different bills to essentially repeal the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And they've gone basically nowhere. No one has talked about them. Again, no one was at these hearings that they were holding on these issues.
ERICKSONAnd I think everyone has been very impressed at the smooth way that this transition has really played out. And the training has been accomplished in a way that, I think, really is beyond what any of us thought could happen in the House more than it has been.
PAGEPeter, I know that the Family Research Council has a different view on lifting Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
SPRIGGRight. I mean, we supported the 1993 law. And I was just surprised to hear the caller say he found very few conservatives in the Marine. That's something I've never heard anybody say before. But -- because what we find is that people who have served in the -- part of the reason, I think, the public is more accepting of this is we live in a society where very few people have served in the military.
SPRIGGAnd people who have served in the military or who serve in the military now still oppose this kind of change. I think they understand that sexual behavior and sexual attractions can have an impact on unit cohesion. And this is something we don't need complicating life in the military.
PAGESo what kind of -- what do you want to see happen on the -- on Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Do you want to -- do you have a proposal on continuing it? Or what do you hope to do?
SPRIGGWell, we would certainly like to see the repeal repealed. But that's going to be very difficult with Democrats controlling the Senate. But there are a number of steps that conservatives have taken as well. One is to try to protect marriage within the military. For example, there was a senior chaplain who announced that they would allow Navy chaplains to perform same-sex marriages and to have these marriages take place on military bases.
SPRIGGWe think the Defense of Marriage Act controls that, and so we've got an amendment added to the defense authorization bill that would prohibit that kind of change. So we're trying to -- you know, trying to mitigate the harm as much as possible.
PAGEAll right. Let's go back to the phones. We'll go to Reston, Va., and talk to Sloan. Sloan, hi, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SLOANHi. How are you?
SLOANGreat. Thanks. I wanted to make a couple of points. First, I mean, I've been together with my partner for 17 years. We are looking forward to finally getting married. And I did want to make just a couple points. First, we are fully supportive of religious liberty for all Americans.
SLOANAnd I think when Lanae was making the point about in the states that are passing marriage equality laws, where there is more success is where it's being made abundantly clear that all Americans support religious liberty and that marriage equality and religious liberty are and fully ought to be on the same side of this issue. That's one point.
SLOANThe other point is with regard to what Peter said. The marriage is not just restricted to couples who can have kids or the straight couples who can have kids or do have kids. If that were the government's only interest, then it would not issue marriage licenses to childless heterosexual couples.
SLOANAnd the other point is that if you look at some of the other issues, whether it's military discrimination, whether it's job discrimination, there is a growing broad consensus among Republicans, among people of faith, that no matter what your beliefs, all Americans should be treated equally under the law, and people shouldn't be discriminated against.
SLOANAnd if you look at the 21 states that have passed non-discrimination laws, religious liberty is still alive and well there. So I think, hopefully, things will eventually go in the right direction.
PAGESloan, let me ask you a question. You say you've been with your partner for 17 years?
PAGEAnd are -- and you're planning to get married?
SLOANYes, we are.
PAGEAnd why does it matter? I mean, if you've been together for 17 years, why does it matter to be able to actually have the legal process of a marriage?
SLOANWell, we would like to get married for the same reason that anyone else would like -- would want to be married. You know, I love him. And we want to be married, and we want the rights and obligations and responsibilities under the law. And I would just point out to Mr. Sprigg, I would never want to do anything that would interfere with his rights. And I would think that it would only be the right thing and that he would want the same.
SLOANHe points -- he paints this as a defensive battle. But no one, whether it's with regard to marriage or equal rights in the workplace or the military, no one is seeking to deny the rights to straight people. So we are only seeking rights for gay Americans that we -- that straight Americans already have.
SLOANAnd, you know, I think whether people are Christian or Jewish, gay or straight, black or white, men or women, all Americans should have equal rights under the law. And polling data reflects it. That's where most of the country is too. So I don't understand when you have people who are opposed. It's as if they think we're wishing to take something away from them.
SLOANWe very much respect that they have the right to their beliefs and to marry who they choose. And they should not be discriminated against. And we feel that the same should apply to us and all Americans.
PAGEAll right. Sloan, thanks so much for your call. Peter Sprigg, what would you say to Sloan?
SPRIGGWell, part of the challenge is that part of the disagreement here is at the fundamental level of defining what the issue is. Sloan has defined it as an issue of rights. We don't define it as an issue of rights. We define it as a question of the definition of what marriage is. What does the word marriage mean?
SPRIGGAnd when you define it -- when you frame it that way, then there's much support for our position, like a recent poll where people were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, I believe marriage should be defined only as the union between one man and one woman, and that -- 62 percent of Americans agreed. Only 36 percent disagreed.
PAGEAnd, Michael, why the difference in these poll findings, just very quickly?
DIMOCKWell, as Peter pointed out before, there are strong proponents and opponents on these issues. But the majority of Americans are somewhere in between. And they don't have a very strong view on these kinds of issues. They have instincts. And when you frame it as an issue of rights, they're supportive. If you frame it as an issue of tradition, they might feel a different way.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. When we come back, we're going to read some of your emails, and we'll go back to the calls. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Lanae.
ERICKSONSo the issue of rights that the gentleman raised on the call, I think, was -- is one piece of it. But the other bigger issue that I heard him raise was that gay couples also want to make a lifetime commitment to each other in front of their family and friends and make that public promise of fidelity and taking care of each other for a lifetime. And I think that that's really the definition that we commonly hold of marriage.
ERICKSONWe've done a lot of research about how moderates same marriage and how people in the middle see marriage. And I think Michael is right, that most people are struggling with this issue. And they have defined it overwhelmingly as a lifetime commitment between two people who want to take care of each other for their life.
DIMOCKThere's nothing to prevent same-sex couples from holding a commitment ceremony, though, before their friends and family and making that commitment to one another, even in the absence of legal recognition of their marriage. So the question is, what public purpose is served?
ERICKSONWell, I think, making that public promise in front of your friends and family is a unique thing that marriage serves. And we all understand and share that tradition. In fact, we asked folks whether they thought that gay couples were changing marriage or trying to join marriage. And folks who thought that gay couples were trying to change marriage were opposed to allowing them to marry.
ERICKSONBut folks who thought that they were trying to join the institution thought that they should be allowed to do so. And so, I think, it's about gay couples really talking about why they want to get married, making that point that we want to get for the same reasons that other folks do, to make that lifetime commitment to our partners.
PAGEAnd, of course, there are financial consequences and legal consequences as well to being married. There are rights and privileges and benefits as we heard earlier in this hour that associate with that. Now, this has been an issue that government has been dealing with. It's also one -- an issue that employers have been dealing with.
PAGEI know, Lanae, in a study that you released last week, you found some changes in the way companies, especially big companies, were treating same-sex couples. Tell us about that.
ERICKSONAbsolutely. You know, as recently as two decades ago, there was not a single company that provided any kind of protections for partners of their gay employees. And at this point, we are well over 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and I think that's been a really stark change. So, for example, my employer provides benefits for my partner, and I can get health care to cover her.
ERICKSONAnd I think that that is a really important indication that our whole society recognizes the importance of that relationship and the gay couples and treating them the same way that they do for their straight employees. As Mary Bonauto pointed out, there is actually problems that arise with that because then, the federal government says that those benefits are treated as taxable. And they wouldn't be for a straight couple.
ERICKSONSo, at that point, then you have to file multiple kinds of taxes, and your employer has to pay back pay on those taxes. Essentially, your employer and the employee have to pay extra taxes in this very convoluted way and add pretend income to your income to then tax it and take it out. And so it just points to kind of the patchwork of laws that we have to deal with at this point in kind of the tipping point of our nation's history.
PAGEAnd, Michael, what about attitudes toward providing benefits in the workplace or employment? Have you seen changes in public attitude toward that as well?
DIMOCKWell, in general, I think this falls in the spectrum of attitudes where people are more accepting and more open. I mean, anything that starts to sound like discrimination or that goes against the notion of diversity and inclusiveness, those are things that the public doesn't like. And those are the kinds of terms that really affect younger voters.
DIMOCKThe things that set them apart and make the younger generation more democratic right now, they really are very different in the way they look at that kind of issue, and anything that smacks of being exclusive or limited in its scope, whether it's by race or ethnicity or sexual orientation, just seems antiquated.
PAGEHere's an email we've gotten from Gordon. He writes us from Dallas. He says, "My partner's spouse died a year ago, one week after our 48th anniversary. Being pre-Stonewall hippies, I doubt we would have ever married. But I want to wish happiness and a long life to all who have married and will be able to marry now. It is fascinating to see the cultural changes that have taken place since the early '60s, not just in the gay community, but throughout the country at large."
PAGEWell, Gordon, thank you very much for your email. And my thanks to our panel, Michael Dimock, Lanae Erickson and Peter Sprigg for joining us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DIMOCKThank you, Susan.
ERICKSONThank you so much.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Sarah Ashworth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. (sp?) Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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