The Rise and Fall of the National Organization for Marriage

Wait, NOM now *wants* the states to be a ‘system of laboratories’?!

February 15, 2012, by Jeremy Hooper

The following little quip fell under the radar last week, but I think we should bring it back for further examination.  This is how John Eastman, Maggie Gallagher's replacement as National Organization for Marriage Board Chair, responded to the idea of marriage being a patchwork of state-level rights:

“We have this system of laboratories called the states where we can try different experiments and see what works well and what doesn’t, without imposing a national rule on everybody,” said [National Org. For Marriage Chair John Eastman], a professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, California.

“We have patchwork laws on all sorts of things” that vary from one state to another, such as custody laws and third-cousin marriages, Eastman said in an interview. “It hasn’t seemed to have brought us down yet."
State-by-State Laws on Gay Marriage Produce Patchwork Quilt [Bloomberg]
(H/t: NOM Watcher John B.)

So okay, wait a minute: NOM's top guy is seriously suggesting his organication is okay with states doing their own things?  That is crazy off-message for NOM.  Or at least crazy off-message for the old NOM.  For the new, "all things to all people of all states" NOM, Eastman's lines actually make a bit of sense from a PR standpoint.

For insight into why I say this new NOM would want to message in the way Eastman has, look no further than New Hampshire.  There, for the first time ever, NOM is pretending to be okay with civil unions, as if taking away same-sex couple's currently legal marriage system in favor of this separate and unequal setup is some sort of "compromise."  NOM has never held this position in any other state.  In fact, NOM and every key voice is on record as being staunchly opposed to civil unions, and the organization took a public stand against such a system just last year in both Illinois and Rhode Island.  But in New Hampshire, polling and local sentiments tells them that a full rights rollback won't work, so they play a game of pretend, with tolerance of civil unions being a key strategic move.

But actually, it's not only New Hampshire.  This year, we also have states like New Jersey and Washington in the spotlight.  In New Jersey, NOM wants to be able to turn to that state's currently legal civil unions and say, "Why do the gays need marriage if they have this thing that's working just fine?"  In Washington, where NOM is trying to take away the just-passed marriage equality law, they want to be able to use the state's in-place domestic partnership setup as a similarly "good enough" arrangement for the state's same-sex couples.  These positions even as NOM continues to guide fights in states like Maryland, North Carolina, Minnesota, Maine, etc., where they see no need to talk about any sort of civil unions or domestic partnership compromise, since such chatter is not currently on the table.  Because again: The civil unions support is always strategy, not genuine concern for citizens' rights.  

So back to Eastman's comment and the "why" behind it: It seems that Eastman believes acting more lax will provide NOM some sort of cover, allowing his org. to more easily justify their slate of state-by-state contradictions.  But I say that's not going to work.  At all.  Because, uhm, wait a minute -- real world calling.  A few truths get in the way of the  plan: 

  1. NOM is a very small organization of only a handul of key voices.  So where does this one, very small D.C.-based organization get off pretending to speak for every state, using whatever local accent is most palatable on a given day?  Sure, they tend to pinpoint and align with whatever local org. is in place there.  But don't be fooled: NOM and its carefully selected team of allies (Shubert Flint, Lawrence Research, Criswell Associates, Opus Fidelis, the Vatican, et al) always take the lead.  So how dumb do they think we are?  Why do they think we're going to sit back and let this org. shape-shift in whatever way befits the given state's polling?
  2. We all know that NOM wants a Federal Marriage Amendment.  Hell, the organization has pressured every leading GOP presidential candidate to sign a pledge vowing to make that happen.  So where does Eastman get off playing the hands-off, states rights guy?  Nothing is more anti-that than the dastardly FMA!
  3. There's also NOM's beloved DOMA.  Sure, NOM says that DOMA would "force" same-sex marriage on the other states.  But what about the currently-married couples who are denied federal rights and protections because of the contrived DOMA's continued existence?  Eastman talks about "national rule" -- but what about the "national rule" of denial that DOMA poses on us?
  4. NOM tells us, ad nauseam, that marriage is a lock-solid concrete that cannot sustain any reconsideration.  So no, John Eastman can't now use a "laboratories called the states" conceit to support this newfound support of state-by-state testing, when he and NOM won't even allow conversation on the subject of same-sex marriage rights, much less exploration!

These are just some of the truths that destroy the "let's live and let the states live as they please" lie.  There are certainly others.

But when I say Eastman's rhetorical sleight of hand is not going to work, I'd add that my belief is very much deponent on us, the NOM Watchers.  We must make sure that people are seeing this incongruity as plainly as we are.  In this year, with such a multi-faceted slate of matters working through courts, legislatures, presidential campaigns, and various ballot initiative processes, NOM is going to be dancing any which way they can to achieve the highest number of results possible.  In this scenario, it's highly likely that this small band of "marriage protectors" will trip up behind their own messaging time and time again.  That's because unlike us, a movement that has a strong and articulated demand of equality under the law in every state and federally, NOM is working from an artificial playbook that's basically trying to keep its players in the game as long as po$$ible.  It's up to us to make sure the public (and the media) sees the fakery as clearly as we NOM Nerds do.