By Peter Henderson
SAN FRANCISCO, March 25 On a frosty December
night last year, about two dozen guests slipped into the Alta
Club, a century-old private retreat a block away from the temple
of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that
dominates Salt Lake City.
Two men, who didn't know each other, were the reason for the
dinner: church lobbyist Bill Evans and gay rights leader Rick
Jacobs. Evans was a point man for the church's successful effort
to pass California's gay marriage ban, known as Prop 8, in 2008.
Jacobs, leader of Courage Campaign, produced a 2008 commercial
against the ban showing Mormon missionaries ransacking the home
of a lesbian couple.
Politics was not on the agenda - just getting to know each
other. "The two hit it off," said host Greg Prince, a medical
researcher and church member who had come to know both men. He
noted that less than a month before the dinner, the church had
launched a website with a major change in its view of gays: the
site said homosexuality was not a choice.
"There has been a shift of some tectonic plate somewhere,"
Shifting attitudes among some conservatives and many
businesses is altering the landscape around gay marriage, long
considered a uniquely liberal and political issue, at one of its
most crucial junctures - its review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the court's nine justices will
hear arguments on the constitutionality of Prop 8 and the
Defense of Marriage Act, which excludes gay couples from federal
Some jurists look to societal changes when interpreting the
law, and scholars speculate that Justice Anthony Kennedy, the
possible swing vote in the divided court, will be pondering
increased public support for gay marriage.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week found 63 percent of
Americans supported gay marriage or civil unions.
While the Mormon Church has backed "traditional marriage" in
Supreme Court briefs, it has been silent in recent ballot
battles and has not promoted fundraising as it has in the past.
Republicans like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio are supporting
gay marriage and publicly conflicting with party leaders, such
as House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner. Portman this
month said he had switched position on the issue after his son
told him he was gay.
Corporations, including Goldman Sachs, whose chief
executive, Lloyd Blankfein, has campaigned in support of gay
marriage, have joined the battle, arguing in briefs to the court
that federal policy of not allowing gay marriage is bad for
The issue is far from settled, however. Gay marriage
opponents have been written off as dinosaurs before, including
in California, and most states ban same-sex weddings. But the
momentum has been moving towards the proponents of gay marriage.
MORMON MONEY, NO MORE
Money has played a huge part in the pivot, both in terms of
the financing of campaigns in favor of gay marriage and the
funding of opposition groups.
When the New York State Senate voted to approve gay marriage
in 2011, four Republicans joined Democrats. Republicans led by
hedge fund manager Paul Singer, whose son is gay, gave the four
financial and moral support, and in the 2012 national race,
Singer led a political action committee that spent more than $2
million to help pro-gay marriage Republicans.
"You have billionaires telling Republicans 'Vote our way and
you'll receive more money than you've ever seen,'" said Brian
Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, the
leader of the movement to stop gay marriage. "That was new."
Pro-gay marriage groups have routed their opponents
financially, outraising them three-to-one in November 2012
ballot races that legalized same-sex marriage in three more
states, bringing the total to nine states and the District of
The single biggest fundraising change between 2008 and 2012
was the disappearance from the political arena of the mightiest
foe of gay marriage - the Mormon Church.
While the church has petitioned the Supreme Court in favor
of Prop 8, it has focused its public messages about gays on
personal issues of respect and love rather than politics.
In the four November 2012 votes - Maine, Maryland,
Washington and Minnesota - the top ballot committees raised
about $30 million for gay marriage and $10 million against it.
The $20 million difference between the two campaigns last year
is close to several estimates of what the Mormon Church and its
supporters gave to California's Prop 8 in 2008.
More than 800 Utahns gave $2.7 million to support Prop 8 in
2008, state campaign finance records show. In 2012, a total of
16 Utahns gave $1,264 to the main ballot committees against gay
"The Mormon Church left as a major funder," concluded Chad
Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the
biggest gay rights group.
Frank Schubert, who ran the 2008 and 2012 anti-gay-marriage
campaigns, downplayed the Church hierarchy's silence last year.
"Not having a direct statement encouraging people to get
involved in the campaign naturally would result in fewer people
getting involved in the campaigns, but there were fewer Mormons
in these states to begin with, and there was never any
expectation that they would be involved."
California Mormon Brooke Crosland, 27, gave $1,000 in 2008
for Prop 8 and made campaign phone calls, but she stayed out of
politics in 2012. She described a personal search for
understanding, which she saw reflected in the church. "I feel
like the ideal for a child is a father and a mother, but I also
feel under the law we should have equal rights," she said.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, whose portrait of gay
rights pioneer Harvey Milk won an Academy Award, was approached
for informal talks by Mormon officials after he narrated a
documentary critical of the church called "8: The Mormon
Proposition." Church officials were surprised to learn that he,
a young, gay man, deeply wanted a family. "That was this big 'ah
ha' moment," he said.
But Black said the initial invitation came only after the
church was pilloried in public. "They didn't contact me after
making 'Milk'. They contacted me after making '8: The Mormon
Proposition'," said Black, who was raised a Mormon. He since has
introduced HRC leader Griffin to church officials, at the
December dinner and a concert following, while continuing talks.
Church spokesman Michael Purdy said its hospitality did not
signal a change in position. "Being committed to marriage
between a man and a woman does not mean that we do not love and
care for all of God's children. Having conversations with gay
rights leaders, speaking about compassion and respect for all,
and inviting people to attend a concert do not equal pulling
back from supporting traditional marriage due to negative
publicity during Prop 8," he wrote by email.
Meanwhile, gay marriage fans and foes agree that
same-sex-union proponents have improved their fundraising. Ted
Olson, President George W. Bush's Solicitor General, made it ok
for conservatives to support gay marriage when he agreed to take
the Prop 8 case, said Margaret Hoover, a pro-gay-marriage
When former Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman in 2010
came out as gay, it was critical mass. "Nightingales don't sing
unless they hear another nightingale singing. As soon they hear
one, another one sings, and another one sings," said Hoover.
Dozens of Republican leaders, including former California
candidate for governor Meg Whitman and former presidential
candidate Jon Huntsman, have signed a brief to the Supreme Court
in favor of gay marriage.
Some 278 businesses, including Goldman Sachs and
hotelier Marriott International, whose chairman and
major stockholder is Mormon, have signed a similar brief
opposing the Defense of Marriage Act. (Thomson Reuters, the
parent of Reuters News, is part of that group.)
The person credited by all sides with cementing the victory
in California for the gay marriage ban was a little schoolgirl
who told her mother she had just been taught, "I can marry a
princess!" The girl was in a commercial for Prop 8, and for
years Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, has been
asked whether he could beat the "Princess" ad.
Wolfson, a fundraising and strategy leader for most recent
ballot campaigns in favor of gay marriage, said the answer was
chiefly to change his own side's message, rather than chase the
opposition. The pro-gay-marriage campaign, which in 2008 had
largely focused on appealing to voters to give gays rights
because it said they deserved them, took a more personal tone,
he said, of affirming the idea of equal rights and respecting
That strategy had some unexpected converts.
David Blankenhorn, founder of the family-focused Institute
for American Values think tank, was the prime witness in 2010 in
the opening round of the federal trial of Prop. 8. Blankenhorn
struck up unlikely friendships with gays while debating the
issue in public, and he was sitting at his desk one day last
year, when one called and told him to go to a website with a
strident, anti-gay article.
"He said, 'Are you sure that this is the side you are on?'"
Blankenhorn recalled. He put down the phone, and in that moment
realized he had already changed his mind.
"I have a kind of intellectual reason for shifting from one
foot to the other foot," he said "But I really, honestly think
that it was through just personal interactions... if you want to
stick with your position, don't get to know people who disagree
Gay marriage foe Brown says he is not worried by polls that
show gay marriage support snowballing. It's all about how you
ask the question, he said, and a majority of voters do not want
to redefine marriage. His side has always been behind in the
money battle, he added, but has had some banner successes.
Politicians can see the danger of switching sides, he said.
Of the four New York State Senate Republicans who voted for
same-sex marriage, only one returned to office, despite
financial backing from sources as diverse as the Service
Employees International Union (SEIU) union, Wall Street
Republicans, and libertarian David Koch.
Back in California, Rick Jacobs, the Courage Campaign chief,
thinks Prop 8 was the best thing that ever happened to his
movement. People sat up and started paying attention when
liberal California overturned its own state Supreme Court and
took away the right to marry, he said, and the court fight has
kept the issue alive.
"It not only galvanized a lot of people who didn't really
care about it before that - gay people - but it also galvanized
straight people," he said. "People said, 'wait a minute, we
don't like voting on people's rights.'"
The night in Salt Lake City left little doubt things had
changed since 2008. After the dinner, the gay rights leaders all
headed over to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's Christmas
spectacular. It was the hottest ticket in town and, as guests of
the church, they had VIP seats.