Tag Archives: legislative strategy

Law and Marriage: a Case Study

Indiana is sometimes called the “buckle on the bible belt;” we are a socially conservative state. Nevertheless, while so many states have amended their constitutions to include prohibitions on same-sex marriage, Indiana has managed to beat back similar efforts. The natural question is: how? What is it about the legislative process and/or the strategies employed by the LGBT community that have allowed Indiana—at least, thus far—to duck the bullet of a constitutional amendment?

 Undoubtedly, the most important ally of the pro-equality forces has been the Indiana Constitution itself. The Indiana Constitution isn’t easy to change—in order to get an amendment on the ballot, both houses of the legislature must pass an identical measure in two successive sessions. That buys opponents some very valuable time, and places a procedural roadblock to any hasty or ill-considered measure.

So our Constitution has helped. It also helped that the Indiana LGBT community joined forces to fight the amendment.

Indiana’s gay community is not much different from communities elsewhere—there are multiple factions, organizations, bloggers, malcontents—you name it. (In fact, the gay community today reminds me of something my mother used to say about the Jewish community when I was growing up: that there are three organizations for every living Jew, and the only thing two Jews can agree on is how much the third should contribute.)

Nevertheless, despite the factions, the strategic disagreements and the inevitable backbiting, the major gay organizations in this state were able to come together to form and support Indiana Equality, an umbrella organization that facilitated the forging of a single, focused strategy. You can assess the importance of that by looking at states where strategy squabbles between and among gay organizations really hurt efforts to promote equality.

That strategy included some of the obvious things: forging coalitions with other progressive groups, and working in informal partnerships with the lobbyists for those organizations, for example. It also included some less-obvious aspects, including a cogent political argument to Democratic legislators: Did they really want a “hot-button” anti-gay measure on the ballot when they were running for re-election? Accurate or not, there is a perception that in 2004, GW Bush was able to get out the Republican vote in a number of crucial states because measures against same-sex marriage were on the ballot. Democrats in Indiana almost certainly would be damaged if there were a similar measure on Indiana’s ballot, and they’d be hurt whether or not they had personally voted for it. That is because such a measure would be highly likely to bring out straight-party Republican voters who otherwise might not show up at the polls. I think there is evidence that a number of Democrats who might not otherwise have been supportive took that warning very seriously. 

Probably the two most important strategies pursued by Indiana Equality, however, were the decisions to reframe the debate and to aggressively court the business community.

By reframing the debate, I refer to the decision to emphasize the effects the language of the proposed amendment would have on all Indiana marriages. While accurate, this line of argument was also intended to give legislators an excuse for opposing the amendment that didn’t require them to take the moral high ground. They could say, basically, “I’m with you, fellow homophobes, but I’m worried about how this language might affect us ‘normal’ folks.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the community was able to get testimony opposing the measure from some of the state’s largest employers. In a very real way, the ability to enlist such high-profile allies is a sign of widespread cultural change, not entirely a testament to Indiana Equality’s persuasive powers. But IE’s lobbyists were able to obtain strong public statements from employers like Eli Lilly, Cummins Engine, Emmis Communications and others, who took the position that passage of the amendment would hurt their recruiting and interfere with their benefits policies. Here were pillars of the community—mainline, mainstream, sober business interests— implicitly saying that efforts to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage are attributable to the political fringe. Their testimony helped IE marginalize proponents of the amendment and frame them as intolerant extremists so intent upon keeping gays second-class citizens that they didn’t care what damage they did to Indiana businesses or  heterosexual couples in the process.

Now, all of this could change; the marriage amendment people certainly haven’t given up. They tried again this year, and they’ll keep coming back—at least for the next few sessions. But Indiana Equality began this fight with an overarching goal: to “kick the can” down the road until the accelerating pace of change to the broader culture makes the issue irrelevant.

So far, that’s worked.