Ralph Reed: Those who oppose same-sex marriage can draw lessons from fight against slavery

Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Seeking to encourage social conservative activists to persevere in the fight against same-sex marriage, Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed drew parallels between the ongoing debate over marriage equality and the nation’s long struggle over slavery and civil rights for African-Americans.

Speaking to about 40 attendees at an afternoon breakout session during the organization’s annual “Road to Majority” conference in Washington, D.C. on Friday, Reed gave a speech in which he suggested the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision —which ruled that African American slaves remained the property of their owners even if they traveled to or resided in free states — held a lesson for contemporary conservative activists concerned about what they see as judicial overreach on the issue of gay marriage.

Before the abolitionists triumphed, Reed reminded, it appeared for many years that the courts would squash the hopes of human rights reformers.

“The battle looked like it was lost, but it really wasn’t,” Reed said of the immediate aftermath of the Dred Scott decision, which went on to embolden abolitionist activists. “And that’s kind of like where we are right now. Anybody heard lately that we’re losing the marriage issue? Anybody heard that argument? You notice some similarities? I’m not comparing slavery to same-sex marriage, OK? I’m just pointing out that when you have these fights, what’s interesting is that if you look at same-sex marriage, it’s now legal in 17 states.”

(Reed said he was not counting the states that have changed since last year’s Supreme Court case that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,"since the beginning of 2011, eight states have passed legislation, one adopted it by initiative and three allow same-sex marriage as a result of court decisions. In six of the states that adopted same-sex marriage by legislation, they overturned previous statutes that prohibited same-sex marriage.")

Continued Reed: “Only six of them, six out of those 17, six out of 50 states, had done it by referendum or by state legislature. In every other case, it was imposed by courts. Just like the courts had to impose Dred Scott. Because they couldn’t do it on the country because the country didn’t agree with it. The country, by the way, doesn’t agree with same-sex marriage.”

Lawmakers often raise the Dred Scott decision, now universally seen as one of the worst acts of American jurisprudence in the country’s history, to make contemporary political points about court decisions with which they disagree.Conservatives frequently invoke the ruling in discussions of the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in 1973. Others have drawn similiar comparisons between Dred Scott and gay marraige recently as well.

But Reed was making a separate point entirely: That conservatives should not give up on the marriage cause just because the legal momentum appears to be in favor of broadening its definition to include gay and lesbian couples. The conference where he made the remarks Friday also hosted dozens of top Republican speakers, including possible future presidential candidates such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Despite national polling showing that support for legal same-sex marriage is growing, Reed said, activists who favor same-sex marriage rights have struggled to overturn longstanding marriage laws through the ballot box. He told the group that supporters of same-sex marriage don’t seek voter initiatives because they believe they will have more success in the courts.

“They have to do this by judicial fiat,” Reed said.

Courts, however, have only recently begun ruling in favor of broadening marriage access. The situation was the much different in the 1970s and 1980s, when courts routinely ruled against same sex marriage when gay couples sued for marriage rights.

Vermont, Maryland, Maine and Washington have broadened the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples through voter referendum.

This article has been updated.