Gay marriage’s support has strengthened in Georgia, but divide remains

Polls are starting to show a generational shift in support in Georgia toward accepting same-sex marriage, even as the state’s political leaders remain staunchly opposed to the idea. But the tenor of their opposition has changed dramatically over the past decade.

When the Georgia Legislature approved a constitutional amendment in 2004, it sparked a debate that is far removed from the one that will take place Tuesday as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to legalize the practice nationwide.

Republicans and some Democrats cast that debate in stark terms, warning of a widescale erosion of family values and the spread of vice. Randal Mangham, then a Democratic lawmaker, took to the floor to proclaim that God “hates the sin called homosexuality” while Republican state Rep. Ed Rynders said simply that it was “wrong.”

That rhetoric today hinges on a fear of federal overreach. In interviews with more than a dozen Georgia politicians, supporters of the marriage ban depicted it more as a battle over states’ rights than a threat to the state’s moral foundation.

U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, a Lawrenceville Republican still firmly on the side of one-man-one-woman unions, said he wants to see the “federal government get out of the business of recognizing marriage.” And Gov. Nathan Deal lamented the prospect of the judiciary overriding the will of the electorate.

It's a stark change from the dialogue that erupted when Georgia and other states enshrined a constitutional ban on gay marriages after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. The ban was a political winner, going 11-for-11, including taking 76 percent of the vote in Georgia.

Now Georgia is one of 14 states where same-sex marriage is not currently permitted. Judicial decisions, state laws and ballot referenda have cascaded across the country as public opinion has taken a turn. A September 2013 Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found 48 percent of Georgians supported same-sex marriage, while 43 percent opposed.

Tellingly, the largest pool of support for the idea came from residents between the ages of 18 and 39, who backed gay marriage by an almost two-thirds tally.

A passionate debate

The atmosphere in 2004 was entirely different.

Georgia lawmakers outlawed same-sex marriage in 1996, but critics in Georgia and elsewhere pressed for constitutional amendments that would be more difficult for a court to overturn.

Republicans gained control of the governor’s office and the state Senate in 2002 for the first time in generations and were chipping away at Democratic control of the state House when Republican state Sen. Mike Crotts of Covington proposed the constitutional amendment in January 2004.

It narrowly gained the two-thirds majority needed as a constitutional amendment to pass the GOP-held Senate, and then it squeezed through the Democratic-held House on a second try. It was placed on the 2004 presidential election ballot and passed overwhelmingly.

Among those voting yes were several lawmakers still in the public eye, including Casey Cagle, Brian Kemp, Ralph Hudgens and Tom Price. Kasim Reed, now Atlanta’s mayor, voted against it.

Tapes capture the divisiveness of the debate. State Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat who was one of the most outspoken critics of the legislation, warned her colleagues that the vote “goes down in the annals in the history of the Legislature.”

“This will be a vote that you’re casting that you’ll live with from now forward, and I ask you to look deep into your heart and move past any sort of politics of how you think you need to position yourself because how you’ve been lobbied by someone threatening your seat,” she said.

Supporters countered that it was needed to protect the state against a judicial branch that could, at any moment, declare the same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. Others cast it as a pivotal moment in a culture war.

"As far as I'm concerned, this has nothing to do with the Constitution and absolutely nothing to do with activist judges," said Rynders, who voted for the ban and still serves in the House. "It has to do with the way I was raised and the way I think you were raised. Pure and simple."

Larry Walker, then a Democratic House leader, was among those who openly wrestled with the legislation. Amid the debate, he said he was voting for the ban — and hopeful that he wouldn’t be judged in the future for his decision.

“I’m not real comfortable about it, but I’ll vote for it. I don’t judge the 1956 people by 2004 standards,” said Walker, now a member of the Board of Regents. “I think that’s wrong. But if I had been here when they voted on separate but equal schools, I would have probably voted for it. I would have probably voted for that. I wouldn’t be proud of it today. But I would probably have voted for it.”

‘Vetted from pretty much every angle’

Nationally, Democrats — including President Barack Obama, who famously "evolved" on the issue — have almost universally crossed over to supporting same-sex marriage, along with a trickle of Republicans. But Georgia's GOP leaders remain opposed to same-sex marriage, and the state is defending the ban in court as crucial to "fostering a child-centric marriage culture."

Deal, who has long backed same-sex marriage bans, said in an interview that some of the vitriol has faded over time thanks to exhaustive debate over an issue that’s been “discussed and vetted from pretty much every angle.” He targeted his criticism instead at the specter of an activist court.

“In effect, it will be decided by people who have lifetime appointments and are not directly responsible to the voters,” Deal said. “That’s unfortunate, and it’s not how I think our Founding Fathers intended this process to play out.”

Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens have sent word to the heads of state agencies to abide by the Supreme Court's ruling no matter their personal opinion.

Some stars of that 2004 debate haven't budged an inch. Sadie Fields was then the head of the Georgia Christian Coalition and one of the most outspoken supporters of the same-sex marriage ban, even after her gay daughter wrote an editorial urging Georgians to reject what she called the "bigotry" of her mother.

Fields said last week that she and her daughter have reconciled after a few visits but that her stance hasn’t changed an iota.

“My views haven’t changed because God’s word hasn’t changed,” she said. “It’s not a godly lifestyle and would not be honored by Him. Just because the culture shifts doesn’t mean God’s laws have.”

In Washington a Congress that passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 wants no part of the debate now. On the Republican side, minds have not changed, but approaches have.

“I believe in Leviticus,” Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said, referencing the Old Testament prohibitions on homosexuality. But, he said, “I never chose to make somebody a demon or an enemy just because of a lifestyle.”

And he says the issue has gone beyond politics “to a higher level.”

“I think the country respects the fact that the states have made their decisions and will respect whatever decision the Supreme Court” makes, he said.

Georgia’s Republicans acknowledged that the debate puts them in an awkward spot. U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta County Republican, said opponents of same-sex marriage have been bullied by the left.

“The gay and lesbian community there that is fighting for this makes anybody that’s opposed to it a bigot, a discriminator, and that’s not true,” Westmoreland said. “People hate to be called racist or bigot or anything like that, so you know therefore they’ll just stay away from it.”

But Woodall said small-government Republicans have some soul-searching to do.

“The challenge I think that conservatives face is sometimes we like to use federal law to enforce conservative values, but we don’t like to use federal law to tell folks what to do when it comes to liberal values,” Woodall said. “We want states to be in charge.”

Woodall, 45, acknowledges wrestling with the contention by supporters and an increasing number of jurists that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue, but he believes it is a question for his Christian faith.

U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, changed his mind after what he described as faith-based introspection. The 69-year-old son of a minister said it started with “the growth of acceptance of my constituency” on the issue and his good relations with the gay community.

Then, he said, he went to the New Testament and Jesus Christ’s “love your neighbor as yourself” command.

Said Scott: “I don’t mind admitting I had a growth period.”