Earlier this month, voters in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington faced ballot measures on same-sex marriage. The measures in Maryland and Washington sought to repeal same-sex marriage rights passed by their legislatures, while Minnesotans voted on whether to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution — and rejected the change. These three unsuccessful measures were part of a long history of anti-gay ballot measures dating back to 1974, which I document in my book, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box. Meanwhile, in Maine voters legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot.
In all four states, the campaigns to ban same-sex marriage developed political ads that suggest that same-sex marriage is a threat to individual religious freedom. One ad about a Gallaudet diversity officer whose job was temporarily suspended due to her support for a referendum on same-sex marriage was initially aired in Maryland before being pulled for copyright restrictions by Gallaudet University. This and similar ads warned voters that individuals who do not support same-sex marriage will be fined, imprisoned, or ostracized for their religious beliefs:
These ads draw from a documentary series called Speechless: Silencing the Christians, created by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, founder and president of the American Family Association, a national organization that has worked for decades to restrict same-sex marriage and other rights for LGBT individuals. The 13-episode series was produced in 2008 and published as a book in 2009:
This discourse of religious freedom relies on civil rights language rather than morality. It focuses on the ability of individuals to live lives of faith in the world and make decisions in all aspects of their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs.
This understanding of religious freedom has more in common with arguments about civil rights than ones about religious morality. Rather than arguing about a particular moral perspective (e.g., the immorality of homosexuality), religious freedom rests on an argument that all individuals should have the freedom to make decisions based on their religion and should not be obstructed in their daily lives in doing so. The ads present Christians as embattled victims of intolerance for their religious views.
The political ads also use many of the zero-sum arguments about civil rights that have been documented by scholars since the 1960s, with gains for one group seen as a loss for another group. For example, a gain for African Americans through desegregation was constructed by some white citizens as an equally dramatic loss for themselves.
Thus, these political ads, which seem to emerge out of the individual politics of each ballot measure, are connected to a larger argument about same-sex marriage and a long history of arguments about civil rights.