The Rise and Fall of the National Organization for Marriage

NOM = Prop 8 = NOM

July 01, 2013, by Jeremy Hooper, Guest Contributor

Most everyone knows that the National Organization For Marriage came into prominence during California's Proposition 8 battle.  However, many don't realize just how much of a NOM production Prop 8 both was and is.  Here's some history.

NOM came into being in July of 2007, but was largely under the radar.  The most major campaign NOM had launched NOM; National Organization for Marriageprior to Prop 8 was a truly nasty billboard effort (pic.) in which the nascent organization compared a Massachusetts state representative to both Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold.  It was a bit of foreshadowing into nasty campaigns that NOM would later launch against state lawmakers in New York and elsewhere, but it was largely ignored by the mainstream media and even by obsessive "culture war" watchers like me.  I just thought of NOM as some little Maggie Gallagher side project that would never amount to much.

Then came California.  Around the fall of 2007, those of us who value basic fairness began turning our attention to the Golden State because we knew that a case was making its way up the courts.  We had won at the trial court level and lost in the appellate court (with a strong dissent), so we knew that all hope rested with the state Supreme Court.  We on the side of equality were very confident in our case and our possibility, and we began growing hopeful that the high court would grant loving same-sex couples what they deserved.

We didn't know at the time just how closely the then-fledgling NOM was also watching.  According to Maggie Gallagher's own testimony, she and her small team (co-founder Robby George, Brian Brown, and others) were closely watching California in the fall of 2007.  She says that after taking some initial meetings in San Diego that fall, she grew determined to ban marriage in the state.  Then, according to Maggie's own words, Bishop Cordileone convinced her to move forward with a ballot initiative. Maggie says that NOM made the decision to go to the ballot on Christmas Eve of 2007, a full six months before the state Supreme Court would even render its pro-equality ruling.

In the years since, I have dug up documents that flesh out this process, showing the intense role that NOM played in NOM; National Organization for Marriagelaying the Prop 8 groundwork.  Without NOM, there would be no Proposition 8.  That is not an overstatement.  Without this one organization (and Maggie Gallagher and Salvatore Cordileone, most specifically) there wouldn't have been a ban, a backlash, or any of the sad saga that is now ingrained in our national history.  NOM deserves to be held responsible for this.

Think of the money alone.  While the grand total of the multi-year Proposition 8 fight would be almost impossible to calculate, think about just the money that we all spent in 2008.  The two sides spent, in total, around eighty million dollars on a fight that never should've been.  There at a time of great financial crisis, NOM forced us all to flow funds toward a discriminatory effort that was unconstitutional from the beginning.  For their side, they duped their own supporters into believing this kind of a ban was both perfectly fair and desperately needed; for our side, they forced us to step up and defend our lives from abject tyranny.  We all lost—and at what cost?

Then there's the well of goodwill that NOM polluted with its talking points.  2008 was a transition year for this nation.  I don't just mean in terms of Obama, hope, change, and all that.  One need not have voted for Barack Obama to have felt the shift that was happening across this nation around that time.  There when we could have been having pointed conversations about how we could come together following such a deeply divisive time and fought actual social ills that plagued us, NOM doubled down on its wedge strategies.  

Or what about pure animus?  While NOM has always been somewhat subtle in its messaging, there is no doubt that this organization has stirred the pot in truly damaging ways.  The Prop 8 campaign was obviously nasty, bringing to rise voices (Jim Garlow, Jennifer Roback Morse, Brad Dacus, etc) who are just plain hostile to LGBT people.  But then, even beyond the initial campaign itself, NOM morphed itself into the "victimized" group, launching off the back NOM; National Organization for Marriageof Prop 8 an aggressive campaign to tell the public that gay people are some sort of "storm" that will collectively wash away America's purity.  If you don't understand how negatively this affects LGBT Americans and how much of a pass it gives those who truly do want to harm us, then you have not been paying attention.

And there are more harms that I'm not mentioning.  Like the overall price tag associated with this fight, the fallout is basically incalculable.  With distance we will surely learn more, but it's likely we will never realize how much this fight  harmed our national psyche.  Sure, it actually helped the pro-equality movement in some very real ways, helping us have some needed national conversations (e.g. ones about why we don't vote on minority rights), drive home powerful images (e.g. Ellen and Portia, anyone?), and make a strong court case that brought together a bipartisan legal team for the common cause of marriage equality.  But again, at what cost?

Whatever the wasted, forfeited, or forcible seized capital, the bottom line is that NOM is responsible for every last bit of it.  This organization should have done its diligence from the beginning and really studied whether this kind of an effort to take away certain citizen's legal rights in the way that they did it would hold up in a court of law.  They should have long breaths and asked whether this was a time and place for a popularity contest that would rob certain people of a right for which they had so strongly and ably fought.  They should have taken an objective look at their own press, supportive groups, and key voices and asked whether the things they say and do to earn votes would ultimately hold up in courts of law, where press releases meet higher scrutiny.

NOM didn't do its diligence, or at least couldn't admit some hard truths about the anti-LGBT movement in this country.  Because of NOM's carelessness, we've all been paying this bill for the past five years.  

And that's just for this one state and this one fight.  NOM has been dropping this same kind of nonsense into any state that will have them, and they have no plans to stop.  So we can't either.  Discrimination's costs are too high; the U.S. Constitution is too valuable.