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Monday, December 5, 2016

By Heidi Przybyla, Bloomberg News (TNS)

The Republican Party is hoping that a Supreme Court ruling before month’s end will close a chapter in American politics that has caught much of the party between evangelicals who emphatically opposes gay marriage and many voters who are supportive of same-sex couples.

Ted Cruz is trying to ensure that the debate is far from over.

While Republican leaders hope that the issue will be neutralized either way the high court rules — by affirming social conservatives seeking to protect states that still bar same-sex marriages or by issuing an unambiguous statement in support of gay couples — Cruz has other goals.

The Texas senator is making evangelicals a bedrock of his 2016 presidential campaign. He’s making it clear that regardless of the case’s outcome, he’ll keep pressing the issue.

“I believe 2016 will be the religious liberty election,” Cruz said at a gathering of faith activists in Washington last week. “Religious liberty has never been more threatened in America than right now today.'”

Cruz has legislative, political and fund-raising motivation. In the Senate, he’s sponsoring a constitutional amendment shielding states that still bar gay marriage, and he’s already attacking his competitors. In his speech last week, he derided Republicans who weren’t supportive of religious liberty laws in Indiana and Arkansas that opponents said would allow businesses to discriminate against gay customers.

“I’ll tell you what was saddest, just how many Republicans ran for the hills,” Cruz said, adding that Indiana was “a time for choosing.”

Cruz’s legislative challenge is going nowhere fast, given that it requires a two-thirds majority of both chambers of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures to amend the Constitution. But by using his power to sponsor legislation, he can distinguish himself from other conservatives in the crowded 2016 presidential field. That may help him with the party’s coveted evangelical base.

In the process, Cruz can also create headaches for more centrist (and more front-of-the-pack) candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who need to get through the nominating process without having to take stands that could hurt them in a general election.

Underlining the concerns of some party strategists, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also among the Republican field’s top-polling candidates, recently threw his support behind a constitutional amendment to allow states to ban gay marriage.

Congressional Republican leaders are using megaphones to blast President Barack Obama’s health care law, which also figures in a major case the court will decide by the end of June. By contrast, they’ve been practically silent on gay marriage.

The same goes for Bush and Rubio. It’s a reflection of the party’s desire to downplay a matter on which polls show they are at odds with the public. A Gallup poll in May found that a record 60 percent of Americans support gay marriage.

“The reality is the ground is shifting on this issue because of people getting to know more about the fact that, for the vast majority of people, this is not a choice, this is who they are,” Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican whose son is gay and who supports gay marriage, said in an interview. “Most of the candidates are not talking about it, which is different than it would have been eight years ago.”

On the other side of the debate, Gary Bauer, president of American Values and one of the nation’s most vocal social conservatives, agrees that “the party establishment and some of the donor base is very uncomfortable with these issues.”

“What they need to ponder is the very real chance of demoralization among voters that care about these issues that would suppress voter turnout,” Bauer said.
As a senator, Cruz can introduce legislation on gay marriage, but there are other Republican candidates who are competing for the evangelical vote and who are eager to make an issue of gay marriage.

In May, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a religious freedom executive order. Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, is promising to fight “judicial tyranny” and calling on his fellow candidates to join him.

“If you lack the backbone to reject judicial tyranny and fight for religious liberty, you have no business serving our nation as president of the United States,” Huckabee said in a letter last week to more than 100 conservative leaders and organizations.

Cruz and the others are backed by activists who say the gay marriage debate is a part of a broader assault on religious liberty that will eventually strip them of their ability to openly practice their beliefs.

Religious leaders are concerned the ruling will force Catholic and other religious-based adoption services to give same-sex couples equal preference, Bauer said. “The battle is morphing away from just the question of the definition of marriage,” he said. ‘”That’s going to be a huge battle that is likely to be very divisive.”

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