ON THIS DAY IN 1996...
Six Republican presidential candidates signed a pledge to not "legitimize homosexual relationships” in the first serious effort to make opposition to same-sex marriage a national issue.
The hosting organization was just weeks old, conceived on the sidelines of a gathering of politically influential evangelicals in Memphis known as the National Affairs Briefing. In a church basement nearby, a cluster of attendees came together to share alarm about developments in Hawaii, where the state supreme court had ruled sympathetically to a demand for equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. It needed to be a priority for religious traditionalists on the mainland, the activists agreed: if no action were taken by mainland governments to reject same-sex unions, they could be forced to recognize those marriage licenses issued in Hawaii.
They set their sights on the next major event on the conservative calendar. In February, Iowa Republicans would begin their party’s process of choosing a challenger to President Bill Clinton. Bill Horn, a Californian who the previous year had moved to Iowa to defeat an openly gay member of a local school board, arranged to use Des Moines’s First Federated Church on the Saturday night before the caucus. Two thousand people showed up for what was promoted as a kickoff event for the National Campaign to Protect Marriage.
The main speaker was Jay Sekulow, chief counsel to the American Center for Law & Justice, which the Christian Coalition had launched to serve as a religious counterweight to the ACLU. He held aloft a folded yellow sheet that he said included the text of the Marriage Protection Resolution. “I want this signed by everyone running for president of the United States!” Sekulow exclaimed. Three Republican candidates in attendance did so immediately; another three sent word that they were signing in absentia. (Only one Republican presidential candidate, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, refused to endorse the resolution.)
Among the three who sent regrets was the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole not only agreed to the pledge, but according to a letter Horn read believed it “does not go far enough.” Three months later, Dole would co-sponsor the Defense of Marriage Act, which would for the first time make same-sex marriage a concern of federal law. The National Campaign to Protect Marriage would disappear from the political scene almost as quickly as it had emerged, but in pushing Congress to take legislative action its influence would be felt for years.