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Gay marriage as 'wedge' issue

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President Barack Obama's endorsement of gay marriage takes a page from Newt Gingrich's playbook.

Gingrich liked "wedge" issues that divided the country so that he and his party could pick up the bigger half. Obama has found a wedge issue that likely will work to his – and his party's – benefit, but it is a dangerous wedge.

I know a little bit about this.

Nearly a decade ago, when I was the organization's executive director, what was then called the Indiana Civil Liberties Union – now the ACLU of Indiana – challenged the state's ban on same-sex unions.

I studied the polling data and focus group findings available and found the same thing that Obama and his team doubtless have discovered.

While the overall support for gay unions may fluctuate from place to place and vary depending upon how the concept is described, a couple of trends were unmistakable.

The first was that support for same-sex unions was growing. From the 1990s on, support for same-sex unions had more than tripled – and the numbers of people who were undecided had grown dramatically, too.

The second was that there was a clear generational divide. Support for same-sex unions reached 60 percent or more among people under age 30. The numbers were even higher among young women, many of whom see issues of personal autonomy and choice to be the most important ones.

Time and momentum are on the side of gay unions.

That would argue for the wisdom of Obama's endorsement – and for Republicans and conservatives to drop their opposition, as some GOP strategists have argued.

Not exactly.

The other thing that the research shows is the depth of feeling among those who are opposed to same-sex unions.

The folks who are opposed to gay marriage aren't just opposed to it. They are bitterly, unyieldingly, scorch-the-earth opposed to any union between two people of the same gender. They flat out hate the idea.

They hate it so much that they will sacrifice other dearly held principles to fight it.

The folks who are against gay unions may oppose government intervention in other areas, but they have no problem passing laws that say two people of the same gender cannot enter into a contract agreeing to provide love, support and care for each other. (In legal terms, that's what a marriage or civil union is – a contract binding two people.)

Those opposed to gay marriage also say they support decision-making at the local and state levels and that they don't want the federal government overreaching into their lives. But they're more than willing to have the federal government pass laws that would override state laws that recognize same-sex unions.

And those opposed to same-sex unions say that they don't want government controlling churches, but they are happy to have government tell churches that do recognize gay marriages that they just don't have the right.

In many places, those opposed to same-sex unions have had success enshrining their opposition into law – and into state constitutions.

Fear of a similar backlash in Indiana made the ICLU suit controversial even among those who supported the idea of same-sex unions – and persuaded the plaintiffs to drop it before it reached the Indiana Supreme Court.

And now, of course, we face a battle over whether Indiana's current legal ban on same-sex unions should be embedded in the state constitution.

At the heart of this struggle is a footrace. The folks who support same-sex unions know that the momentum of public support is on their side, but that momentum is slow and steady. The folks who oppose same-sex unions understand that and they're working desperately to set up legal barricades that would make the shift in popular opinion irrelevant.

That's the fire President Obama is playing with.

His support of same-sex unions will gain him and his party ground among younger voters, but at the risk of further energizing the people determined to keep those young people from getting what they want.

That's the thing about fires.

They don't always burn in the direction a person – even a president – wants.

John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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