By ERIC GORSKI
For conservative Christian activists, this month's California Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage provides an opportunity to rekindle interest in an issue that has fallen well behind the price of gas in the national consciousness.
But it won't be easy, and not just because of pressing secular issues like the housing downturn and an unpopular war in Iraq.
Voices within evangelicalism are pushing for a broader agenda, and evidence suggests younger evangelicals are more accepting of gays and lesbians. Meanwhile, anti-gay marriage amendments are on the ballot in only a few states and the issue doesn't play to presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain's strengths.
Yet gay marriage opponents say the California ruling will help them broaden their religious coalitions to include more Hispanic Catholics and evangelicals.
The ruling, they say, made their argument for them: Constitutional measures are needed to prevent judges from subverting the will of the people and reinventing a sacred institution they believe is central to society's well-being and part of God's design.
"I think the California decision does refocus our movement on the threat of marriage being redefined," said John Stemberger, who as head of the Florida Family Policy Council is supporting a proposed amendment in that swing state that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. It would prohibit civil unions providing the same benefits of marriage.
Unless a stay is granted on the California ruling, gender-neutral marriage certificates will begin being issued June 17. Acceptance of gay marriage is growing in the state, with a Field Poll released Wednesday showing that 51 percent of respondents support legalizing same-sex marriage and 42 percent oppose it.
Another fight is brewing in New York, where opposition is forming to Gov. David Paterson's new directive to state agencies to recognize gay marriages legally performed in other states and countries. Gay marriage is not legal in that state, and its highest court has said such unions can be legalized only by the legislature.
Gay marriage erupted as a national issue in 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage there. The next year, 13 states approved amendments prohibiting gay marriage.
Conservative Christian groups credited the marriage measures with inspiring "values voter" turnout and helping re-elect President Bush. Several studies disputed that, showing partisanship, the Iraq War and national security were far more important factors nationally.
Other research, however, found that in Ohio, a battleground state that went for Bush, a successful amendment banning gay marriage did move votes toward the president.
Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University political scientist who reached that conclusion in his study of the Ohio vote, said that four years later, things have changed: Far fewer states have a marriage issue on the ballot, conservatives' "raw fear" of gay marriage has declined, and McCain opposes a federal constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage, which Bush supported.
"I think in a year of war and a weak economy -- not to mention race as a campaign issue -- that this will not be nearly as big as before," Wilcox said.
McCain has said he thinks defining marriage should be decided by states, and in 2006 he supported an anti-gay marriage amendment in his home state of Arizona.
It failed, the first such amendment to do so. A bill that would to return the question to the November ballot is pending before the Republican-controlled Senate.
Already, activists in Arizona are looking to California to make their case a second time. In California, passage of the initiative would overrule the Supreme Court decision.
"The California decision shows exactly why the people of Arizona should vote for a marriage definition in November and not leave it for judges or politicians," said Cathi Herrod of the Center for Arizona Policy, an affiliate of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.
California is the third state gearing up for gay marriage amendment campaign this fall, significant because some analysts think McCain can challenge the Democratic nominee there.
"The malaise that some (conservative Christians) felt about the upcoming election has in large part been wiped away by the California decision," said Mathew Staver of the conservative Christian legal group Liberty Counsel, who is raising money to overturn the California decision. He also co-authored the proposed Florida amendment.
The California decision not only deepens the resolve of religious conservatives, Staver said, but should anger "people who might not otherwise get involved in values. Most people do not respond well to having four judges determine the definition of marriage."
In Florida and elsewhere, efforts to broaden support to include more Hispanic Christians are intensifying. The Virginia-based Alliance for Marriage Foundation is uniting Hispanic evangelical and Catholic leaders to "stand up for marriage" at rallies this summer in Denver and Minneapolis during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, respectively.
"We believe that demographically, the Latino community is very much the future of our cause," said Matt Daniels, the foundation's president. "Because they are an immigrant community, they have largely been silent in the debate."
Nearly nine in 10 Hispanic evangelicals oppose legalizing gay marriage while slightly more than half of Hispanic Catholics are opposed, according to a survey last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Polls also show, however, that younger evangelicals are more accepting of homosexuality than previous generations. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of 15,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, Mo., said he is witnessing a shift that could alter the conventional wisdom about marriage amendments turning out evangelical votes.
"There are an increasing number of people who are trying to find a third way between the left, which tends to discard biblical teaching regarding sex outside marriage, and those who have made homosexuality the central concern of the Christian faith," said Hamilton, who describes himself as evangelical. "They are trying to see the gray between the black and white."
The California decision also comes as a growing chorus of evangelical leaders say the movement's agenda should broaden to include poverty, global warming and AIDS.
Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., is among a group of leaders who this month released "An Evangelical Manifesto," a document calling for "an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage."
Before the California decision, Mouw said gay marriage was on the margins of the evangelical agenda. Now, he predicted, it will move back to the center.
Mouw said he worries both about evangelicals' angry rhetoric and gay rights supporters who portray gay marriage foes as homophobic and the equivalent of racist, ignoring the moral and religious dimensions.
"The more it looks like this agenda is going to carry the day nationally, the more evangelicals are going to be pushed back into a movement of very narrow focus that a lot of us have been trying to get out of," Mouw said. "For those of us who are trying to broaden the dialogue, (the California decision) was not the right thing to have happen."