In what is being called a blow for anti-gay marriage advocates, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has been found in violation of campaign finance law in Maine. In 2009, NOM apparently used back channels of its organization to funnel about $2 million into the fight against marriage equality and to avoid revealing who the donors to that campaign were. Ultimately, that campaign was unsuccessful and marriage equality was made law in 2013, but now that the fight is over, the organization is finding itself under investigation to determine how exactly it paid for its extensive messaging. As this story is ongoing, more will no doubt be revealed about NOM’s practices which may be even more damning, but for the moment this story points to the core of the marriage equality debate. Questions have arisen over what NOM stands for as well as why its message has failed to resonate not only in Maine, but in the U.S. as a whole.
Back in 2009, the National Organization for Marriage was fighting to overturn marriage equality in the state of Maine. To do that required money, but there was a problem. Some people were worried that the state law requiring political campaigns to submit the identities of their donors would lead to a lack of donations. If donors felt that they could be targeted or intimidated because of their donation, they would not give any money to NOM and the fight would be effectively over. In order to circumvent that law, NOM had donors send their contributions directly to NOM instead of to the campaign in the state, thereby protecting their identities and allowing the organization to still fund its campaign from its own coffers. That was illegal then, but without an investigation it did not become an issue. Marriage equality was overturned in 2009 due in part to NOM’s involvement and continuous campaigning.
The investigation into NOM’s donation practices has been ongoing since 2009, leaving the organization to twice appeal (unsuccessfully)Maine’s campaign finance laws by challenging their constitutionality. This is not its first defeat over the subject and according to NOM President Brian Brown, they will appeal this decision as well. For him, the issue is one of fairness. Other organizations in the state have used the same tactic to keep from disclosing who their donors were and he believes that it would be unfair for NOM to be penalized where others were not. To protect donors from harassment and intimidation, NOM had to do what it did and it simply is not fair that they should be taken to task for violating the laws of the state.
Oddly, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia does not agree with Brown’s version of fairness. In a different ruling against NOM, Scalia called the possibility of harassment and intimidation “a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance.” The LGBT community is no stranger to the costs. During a seminal moment in the gay rights movement, police officers refused to stop harassing gay bar patrons and the irritated and intimidated people decided to fight back. What would result out of that harassment and intimidation would become known as the Stonewall Riots, a rallying point for the gay rights movement. Without the riots, the path of equality for LGBT persons would have been much different.
The argument over campaign finance law and fairness strikes the heart of the marriage equality movement and its opposition. Both sides have their own idea of what the correct answer is, but both sides probably agree on one important point: the outcome of this argument will help determine the outcome of the entire gay rights movement.
Back in 2009, gay rights activist Fred Karger, suspecting foul play, wanted the donation practices of NOM to be investigated. Years later, he considers the most recent ruling a victory. His plan for this argument is to do exactly what NOM fears transparency would do. “My goal is to scare away their donors, and that’s what today really did,” he says. Karger wants to use the courts to create more transparency in the process and force donors to put their names to what they believe. If the simple reality of transparency is enough to scare away donors, then gay rights activists do not need to resort to intimidation and harassment at all.
If opponents of marriage equality really believe in the concept of traditional marriage, then putting their name to that belief should not be an issue. Perhaps it would be a badge of honor, especially if the fight over marriage equality is as important as NOM has claimed it to be. In 2009, the organization was pitching Maine as the fight to end all fights over gay marriage. At the time, Brown claimed that “Maine is about more than Maine.” In a fundraising email to supporters, he postulated the idea that if marriage equality failed in Maine it would mean that there was “no majority for gay marriage anywhere in these United States.” The National Organization for Marriage and its violations of campaign finance law won the battle in 2009, but in 2014 they have lost the war.
In fact, America has shown that Brown was only half right. He was wrong about the majority for gay marriage. Today, marriage equality enjoys more than 50 percent support among voters. Some opponents of same-sex marriage want to take the battle out of the courts where they are losing badly and put it in the hands of the people. To do so might actually turn out to be suicide for their opposition and for organizations like NOM. Widespread support shows that the majority is for gay marriage, which is against everything anti-gay marriage proponents would have people believe. But Brown was right about one thing: Maine really was about more than just Maine. The state was only one step in the journey towards marriage equality, as 18 other states have followed its lead. The triumph of equality in Maine has led to similar triumphs elsewhere.
While gay rights advocates and anti-gay marriage crusaders are arguing over marriage equality via campaign finance law, the state of Maine has a different fight altogether. In the Bangor Daily News, an editorial neatly summed up what the case against NOM really means for the state and it has nothing to do with marriage ideology. Instead, it is about “light” being cast on the doings of people who have influence in their state. With so much money coming into the state’s political campaigns, people want to know who stands for what. More importantly, if they are going to accept what a certain side says, they want to know who said it and why. Investigating NOM is not about a stance on gay marriage. It is about knowing all the facts that go into their decision-making. For the state, this is a fight for transparency in the political process, something both sides of the debate have to face up to.
The fight for marriage equality has taken many forms over the years. Some have tried to put a human face on the issue, something that has proved successful. It is harder to argue against something or to hate the people involved when they happen to be your friends, neighbors or family. Others have tried to appeal to studies in sociology and psychology to argue that there is something fundamentally wrong with gay marriage, not just for gays, but for any children involved. NOM appeals to a discredited study by Mark Regnerus to attempt to get its point across. For people like Fred Kager, transparency is a weapon to be used against people who are involved in the process. But through all of that, there are larger issues at stake, as Maine shows. Sometimes it is not about the debate, but it is about what people deserve from their political process, such as honesty, transparency and the right to make up their own minds. The news that the National Organization for Marriage is in violation of Maine’s campaign finance laws will be used by both sides to point to what the marriage debate is really about, but it should not short-sight the larger issues of society that are at play.
Opinion by Lydia Bradbury