The 2014 election offers Michiganders an important do-over on gay marriage, a chance to erase the economic handicap and cultural stain that the 2004 constitutional ban has visited upon our state.
And while Gov. Rick Snyder is no fan of judicial activism, he must be hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court will throw out Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban before shifting public opinion strands him and other Republicans seeking statewide office on the wrong side of history.
A new survey by the respected Glengariff Group, which has been polling Michiganders’ attitudes toward the issue annually since October 2004, reveals that voters in the Great Lakes State now back gay marriage by a 57%-38% margin — an almost exact reversal of the electorate’s disposition nine years ago, when 58% of Michigan voters supported a state constitutional amendment outlawing the recognition of same-sex marriages.
Yes: Michiganders have apparently followed national trends in which tolerance and acceptance have overcome bigotry and injustice. This state might now be poised to join the 12 others that refuse to deny people basic human rights because of whom they love.
The Glengariff results — which are consistent with polling data highlighting similarly seismic attitude shifts in Virginia and Arizona — two other states that have outlawed gay marriage within the last decade — augur the inevitable demise of discriminatory marriage laws here and elsewhere.
That’s good news for the Rick Snyder who wants to eradicate obstacles that discourage talented young people from staying in or moving to our state.
In a 123-page study released earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights warned that the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is repelling the professionals and college-educated residents Snyder seeks to attract. A popular vote to repeal the ban — which could come as early as next year — would send a positive signal to gay and young people who regard the issue as a litmus test for tolerance and commitment to diversity.
But a ballot initiative could pose a political challenge for Snyder and other Republican candidates walking the tightrope between the growing majority of Michiganders who support same-sex marriage and the dwindling-but-still-significant number of GOP voters who continue to oppose it.
While the success of any repeal effort is far from guaranteed, a ballot initiative would make it difficult for GOP candidates to sidestep the issue, with predictable hazards for their prospects in both the August GOP primary and the November general.
A stunning change of heart
For Democrats running statewide, the decision to support a repeal initiative would be simple. Fully, 75% of Democratic voters now support recognition of same-sex marriages, up from 71% in a Glengariff poll conducted a year ago. Among voters who identify themselves as independents, support has jumped from just 36% in 2012, to 51% — a 15-percentage-point swing.
But the most dynamic shift has taken place among Republican voters, whose support for same-sex marriage has soared 17 points, to 37% from 20% in the 2012 survey.
Republicans older than 40 continue to oppose gay marriage by a 63%-32% margin. But a 54% majority of GOP voters younger than 40 support it, and Republicans in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties are evenly split.
Glengariff’s Richard Czuba summed up the Republicans’ dilemma in an interview with the Michigan Information and Research Service last week: “While same-sex opposition will have strong resonance among Republican primary voters in out-state Michigan,” Czuba said, “Republicans will increasingly have to deal with the opposite effect in southeast Michigan — particularly Oakland County, where support is now up to 68%.”
Snyder’s blazing straddle
Except for his December 2011 decision to sign a bill barring medical benefits for same-sex partners of government employees, Snyder has been careful not to ally himself too closely with his party’s staunchest opponents of gay marriage.
He insists his decision to end same-sex medical benefits was calculated to conserve limited state resources, not discriminate against gay employees. He speaks often of his interest in making Michigan a place where no one feels excluded, and he points to a growing body of data suggesting that attracting and retaining talent is the key to Michigan’s long-term prosperity.
Supporting legislative action to dismantle one of the most conspicuous vestiges of state-sanctioned discrimination may be politically hazardous for Michigan Republicans, but it’s utterly consistent with the values to which Snyder pays lip service.
In other policy arenas, especially immigration, the governor and his inner circle have lobbied for initiatives that lower barriers to talent; now that a substantial majority of Michiganders seem to have turned against the gay marriage ban, removing that obstacle seems like a no-brainer, too.
Not whether, but when
Marriage equality may come to Michigan as soon as this summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court could rule — in a case that challenges California’s less-onerous discrimination against same-sex couples — that all state bans are unconstitutional.
Even if the justices stop short of such a sweeping decision, as most court-watchers expect them to, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman could reject or limit Michigan’s ban in a separate lawsuit brought by two Oakland County women seeking to jointly adopt each other’s children.
But whatever the courts do, the die has been cast in Michigan, just as it was cast in Minnesota, Maryland and the 10 other states that have adopted legislation recognizing same-sex ceremonies.
The question is whether Snyder and his fellow Republicans will elect to participate in that historic sea change — or stand agape as it washes over them.