Chicago Tribune: The GOP warms to marriage equality

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Only one Republican voted for the same-sex marriage bill that passed the Illinois Senate on Valentine's Day. The measure squeaked out of a House committee last week without a single Republican vote. There's a move afoot to oust state GOP Chairman Pat Brady for speaking in favor of gay marriage, in contravention of the official party stance.

But the marriage equality bandwagon is rolling nationally, and Republicans are climbing aboard, for good reason.

More than 100 prominent Republicans signed an amicus brief last week, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn California's ban on gay marriage. Almost 300 businesses signed a similar brief asking the court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage, for purposes of federal law, as the union of one man and one woman.

The national GOP platform, adopted in August at the Republican National Convention, called for a constitutional amendment echoing the one man, one woman standard. When President Barack Obama instructed his Justice Department not to defend DOMA in court, House Republican leaders authorized spending taxpayer money to do so.

But as the high court prepares to hear arguments in back-to-back cases challenging DOMA and California's Proposition 8, some big Republican names are asking the court to recognize that gay couples have a constitutional right to wed.

The friend-of-the-court brief supporting a lawsuit against Proposition 8 is signed by U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Fla., and Richard Hanna, N.Y.; Meg Whitman, who supported the measure when she ran for governor of California in 2010; former senior advisers to presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney; four former governors; and dozens of other party leaders and strategists.

Actor Clint Eastwood, the guy who debated an empty chair at the RNC, joined the brief, urging fellow Republicans to put this issue behind them. "We're making a big deal out of things we shouldn't be making a deal of," he said.

Making a big deal of those things didn't help the GOP in November, and it could hurt the party more in future elections. Support for same-sex marriage is growing: More than half of Americans favor it, compared to one in three 10 years ago. About 70 percent of voters under 30 are in favor.

But the shift among Republicans isn't just practical or political. Support for same-sex marriage is consistent with conservative values, including limited government and individual freedom. The brief opposing Proposition 8 argues (as we have) that allowing gays to marry strengthens communities, promotes two-parent families, protects the welfare of children and rewards committed social and economic unions.

In a guest essay in American Conservative last week, former Utah Gov. John Huntsman argued that same-sex couples and their children are entitled to the same legal rights and protections as those in heterosexual families. This was a shift, too: In his 2012 bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Huntsman supported civil unions, which provide many, but not all, of the legal benefits of marriage.

"My marriage has been the greatest joy of my life," Huntsman wrote. "There is nothing conservative about denying other Americans the ability to forge that same relationship with the person they love."

The 278 corporations challenging DOMA cast it as a matter of fairness and as a burden on business, a traditional Republican constituency. Companies that operate in states that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or marital status are forced by the federal government to discriminate anyway, they argue.

The companies — including Citigroup Inc., Microsoft, Starbucks, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Walt Disney Co. — say DOMA "forces us to treat one class of our lawfully married employees different than another." The law is a headache for human resources departments and forces companies into all sorts of machinations to provide comparable benefits so they can attract and keep the best workers.

We hope the Supreme Court will overturn DOMA. It violates the constitutional requirement of equal protection under the law by denying thousands of federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in states that sanction those marriages. It should be up to individual states to set those rules.

That's why we'd rather see Illinois pass a law to allow same-sex marriage than have the Supreme Court declare it a constitutional right by striking down Proposition 8.

Lawmakers' reluctance is largely a response to religious groups' fear that allowing same-sex couples to wed would devalue traditional marriage. The bill that will come before the Illinois House has been amended to address those objections. It states explicitly that no church or minister will be required to recognize or solemnize gay marriage. It provides that churches can't be penalized for refusing to hold same-sex ceremonies in their facilities.

With those assurances, conservatives in both parties should find that the bill squares nicely with their core principles.

Nine states have approved same-sex unions. Illinois would do well to join them.

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