When a federal appeals court ruled July 28 that Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, the writing was on the wall for South Carolina: With an appeal of the state’s own ban against same-sex marriage working its way through the courts, it’s likely South Carolina’s law will be overturned by the same 4th Circuit court.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley quickly said the state would continue defending its law against same-sex marriage in court anyway. Her independent opponent Tom Ervin called for the state to drop the suit and waste no more taxpayer money, even though he is personally opposed to same-sex marriage.
Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who is also running for governor, finally released a cautious statement three days after the Virginia ruling.
“The U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately decide this issue, and our state should pause in the legal battles and await a decision by the court,” Sheheen said. “When that decision is given, we must come together and abide by the law of the land, and regardless of the outcome churches must always maintain their ability to determine what ceremonies they conduct and recognize.”
But when it comes to actual personal opinion on same-sex marriage, there’s no difference between Haley, Ervin and Sheheen: Sheheen has said in the past he opposes same-sex marriage, and he reiterated that opposition last week.
Although South Carolina is a conservative state in which a majority of residents still oppose same-sex marriage, Sheheen’s position contrasts with many leaders in his own party — and, increasingly, with that of many South Carolina Democrats.
Among high-profile South Carolina Democrats and those running for statewide office, support for same-sex marriage is more and more the norm. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn supports marriage equality, as does state Sen. Brad Hutto, who’s challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham this fall. The South Carolina Democratic Party hasn’t taken a position on the issue, but chair Jaime Harrison supports marriage equality. Democrat Parnell Diggs, who’s running against Alan Wilson for attorney general, said last week, “Our nation is moving toward fairness and equality on the issue of marriage, and this trend is reflected in court decisions around the nation including the 4th Circuit. It is time for Alan Wilson to read the writing on the wall.”
Independent candidates, too, are leaning toward marriage equality: Both Thomas Ravenel, who’s running against Graham and Hutto, and Tom Ervin, who’s running against Haley and Sheheen, said last week the government should get out of the marriage business.
The national Democratic Party added support for same-sex marriage to its platform in 2012.
And there’s been speculation that Hillary Clinton’s difficulty in dealing with the same-sex marriage issue — she couldn’t give NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross a straight answer about when and how she changed her mind to accept marriage equality — could hamper her in a Democratic presidential primary.
Still, Sheheen is still on the same side of the issue as about half of South Carolina Democrats — or at least he was last year.
As of last fall, according to Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon, half of South Carolina Democrats in the quarterly poll — 49 percent — said same-sex marriage should not be legal, while 41 percent said it should. That’s compared with 69 percent of Republican respondents who opposed same-sex marriage. (Huffmon pulled these numbers from the raw data at Free Times’ request; last October’s Winthrop Poll reported only the level of support for same-sex marriage among all likely voters.)
Huffmon emphasizes that these numbers don’t reflect likely voters, or even registered voters, and that people who vote are more likely to fall in line with official party platforms. So it’s likely that Democratic voters in South Carolina are more supportive of same-sex marriage than the poll shows.
He also says attitudes may have already shifted further since last year’s poll. They’ve certainly already shifted dramatically since 2006, when 78 percent of South Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in the state.
“Opposition to same-sex marriage was overwhelming in the vote in 2006 — although that was an off-year election, so fewer Democrats showed up,” Huffmon says. “But I think every poll we’ve seen nationally has been showing a growing acceptance, especially among younger folks. As the younger population ages into the voting constituency and as some of the older population are aging out … attitudes are changing. While South Carolina still shows general opposition, it is far less opposed than it used to be.”
In the past, gay rights supporters have said they’re disappointed in Sheheen’s position on marriage.
But LGBT groups in South Carolina have been reluctant to condemn Sheheen for his cautious stance.
Todd Shaw chairs the South Carolina Equality PAC, a political action committee committed to LGBT causes. The PAC is interviewing and endorsing candidates; already, it’s endorsed Diggs, the Democratic attorney general candidate.
Support for marriage equality isn’t the key issue in South Carolina races this year.
“We’re asking candidates, at the very least, to say they’ll uphold the rights of LGBT citizens in education, housing and employment,” Shaw says.
For now, the gay community is also “hopeful” that marriage equality would be a priority for candidates, Shaw says. “It’s encouraging to see them move in the right direction,” he says.
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