DETROIT — Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who keeps mostly silent on social issues in favor of focusing on the economy, is stepping carefully on the issue of gay marriage after a judge’s declaration that the state’s ban is unconstitutional.
While Snyder supported traditional marriage in the 2010 campaign, his penchant since then has been to deflect questions about his personal views and defer to the ban Michigan voters passed with almost 60 percent support in 2004.
He’s not pushing to drop the state’s appeal, as GOP governors have done in New Jersey and Nevada. Nor is he saying if the state will recognize same-sex marriages conducted over the weekend, preferring to wait for word from an appeals court. The appellate court put an indefinite halt to them today while taking a longer look at the judge’s decision.
Snyder’s office describes it as a “complex, unusual situation,” and says it’s “sensitive to feelings on this issue.”
His detachment is exasperating critics who say he should take more of a leadership role, even if it’s an issue he would prefer go away. His dogged neutrality also reflects the challenge for Republican leaders nationally whose opposition to gay marriage is becoming less visible as the party works to improve its image and polls suggests most Americans support same-sex marriage.
“It’s clear that the Republican Party is going to have to make a strategic decision whether it’s worth fighting a fight — a political, cultural and social fight — that’s already been lost,” said Dennis Lennox, an under-30 GOP strategist and Michigan precinct delegate. “If you’re running for office this November as a Republican, setting aside deeply held religious beliefs if you have them, do you really want to be talking about gay marriage?”
Michigan’s more conservative attorney general, Republican Bill Schuette, is leading the state’s appeal. Democrats and even some within Snyder’s own party say he could distance himself from Schuette or file his own briefs in the case that names the governor — who’s up for re-election this fall and has generated quiet buzz as a 2016 presidential contender — as a defendant.
Schuette, who’s also up for re-election and has an eye on the governor’s office in 2018, is actively fighting to keep the gay marriage prohibition in place. His office went outside the state, and even to Canada, to find conservative social scientists and economists to defend Michigan’s ban in a trial before Friedman.
“I took an oath as attorney general to protect and defend the constitution. And I’m going to fulfill that oath,” Schuette said. “The constitution is not like a buffet line at some restaurant where you can pick and choose which item you might wish.”
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia issue licenses for gay marriage. Since December, bans on same-sex marriage have been overturned in Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia and now Michigan, but appeals have put those cases on hold. More than 300 gay and lesbian couples were issued marriage licenses on Saturday before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals similarly put on hold U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman’s decision from a day before.
Democratic attorneys general in at least seven states have declined to defend same-sex-marriage bans that have been challenged in court by gay couples. For Republicans, however, the issue is a balancing act.
“Snyder has taken a position that is pretty predictable — he’s going to uphold whatever the state law is. Politically, it’s probably a safe position to be in,” said Tom Shields, a GOP consultant in Lansing.
Mark Schauer, Snyder’s likely Democratic opponent in November, says Snyder’s “on the wrong side of history and is showing not only a lack of leadership but the wrong leadership.”
An EPIC-MRA poll of likely Michigan voters last year showed 55 percent would vote to allow same-sex couples to marry and 41 percent would oppose it. More than six in 10 conservatives opposed gay marriage, however, while three in 10 moderates were in opposition.
Snyder has no primary opponent to worry about despite upsetting conservatives by pushing for Medicaid expansion and vetoing abortion insurance legislation that still eventually became law. But tea party activists are hoping to send a message by replacing his lieutenant governor at the Republican state convention this summer.
Some within the tea party also have been critical of prominent Republican strategist Greg McNeilly, former executive director of the state GOP, who married his partner of 12 years at a courthouse near Lansing on Saturday.
McNeilly said Republican leaders are acting responsibly for now while waiting to see what happens at the appeals court. Making sure gay couples can marry and not be denied federal benefits is “within the Republican tradition and Republican principles,” he said.
“I do think the party needs to modernize its world view more broadly on these issues,” McNeilly said. “The Republican Party has a proud tradition of fighting for equality. It’s never too late to protect that tradition and extend it by moving on this issue.”