(Updated 11:40 a.m. Friday, June 27)
Just a few weeks ago, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster was publicly exhorting Missouri Republicans to change their party’s platform, which endorses the state’s 10-year-old constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Now, Koster is preparing to defend that ban while it is being challenged in court as a result of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s decision to marry four same-sex couples at City Hall on Wednesday night.
Slay – who has several gay relatives – said his intent was “to force the issue and to get the law settled for everyone who wants to get married in the state of Missouri.”
Opponents of the ban believe they may be able to get it tossed out on the grounds that it violates the federal Constitution.
But the political fallout of the renewed fight could be just as significant.
The initial wave of attention is directed at Koster, a Republican-turned-Democrat who’s running for governor in 2016. He left the Republican Party in 2007 largely over his objections to the GOP’s focus on social issues, including its blanket opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Some Democratic sources say that Koster had been given a heads-up weeks ago that St. Louis gay-rights supporters were planning a legal challenge to the state’s gay-marriage ban.
But a spokeswoman said late Thursday: "While there had been rumors of possible actions in the city of St. Louis, the attorney general did not learn that any licenses had been issued by the city recorder prior to speaking to the mayor."
That conversation with Slay took place Wednesday night, Koster's aides say.
At the state Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner downtown earlier this month, Koster drew cheers when he lauded Democratic efforts in the General Assembly to press for an anti-discrimination law that would prevent Missourians from losing their jobs solely because of their sexual orientation.
Koster then declared, “Hopefully, the Republican Party will scrub the discriminatory language from their party’s platform.”
That language specifically endorses Missouri’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which was passed by more than 70 percent of the state’s voter in the August 2004 statewide election.
Has Missouri shifted on gay marriage?
Koster was a bit more circumspect in a statement issued Thursday as his office’s lawyers went to court to defend Missouri’s gay-marriage ban.
“While I personally support the goal of marriage equality, my duty as attorney general is to defend the laws of the state of Missouri,” Koster said. “While many people in Missouri have changed their minds regarding marriage equality, Missourians have yet to change their constitution.”
Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the rapid change in the general public’s views on the matter has been stunning. “I think the shift of public opinion on gay marriage has been one of the most dramatic and most rapid shifts on a major public-policy issue that I’ve seen since I’ve been watching politics,’’ he said.
The change in the political climate was evident Thursday. The two major Democrats battling for St. Louis County executive this summer – incumbent Charlie Dooley and challenger Steve Stenger – both sent out statements and Tweets underscoring their support for same-sex marriage, gay rights and Slay’s action.
But few, if any, of the state’s top Republicans said anything about Slay’s actions or their longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage.
Matt Wills, executive director for the Missouri Republican Party, was a prime exception. "The actions of the mayor were just plain wrong,'' Wills said in an interview.
The GOP executive director added that his party’s opposition to same-sex marriage remains firm. “Our platform is very clear,” Wills said. “It’s a black-and-white issue as it relates to the definition of marriage.”
And although both camps acknowledge that the public’s opinion may be shifting on the issue, Wills said gay-marriage opponents remain confident that most Missourians side with them.
In fact, Wills speculated that gay-marriage opponents may try to get another gay-marriage ban on the 2016 statewide ballot to bolster their position – and generate enthusiasm among like-minded Missouri voters.
“If that is something that is able to be brought up, then I think it would be something that we would definitely encourage,’’ Wills said. “We’ve done it before; we can do it again.”
On Friday morning, House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka and a likely statewide candidate in 2016, finally issued a statement criticizing the marriages at St. Louis City Hall, calling the mayor's action "irresponsible."
"As government employees, they took vows to uphold our constitution and follow our laws without prejudice," Jones said. "It is alarming that they think it is appropriate to willingly violate the Missouri Constitution to send a political message. The appropriate way to push for a change to our constitution is through a legislative joint resolution or an initiative petition, both of which allow the public to have the final say. In doing this, it is clear they are trying to push for a change in law to be mandated by the courts, regardless of what the people of Missouri think.”
For whatever reason, Jones did not mention his own opposition to same-sex marriage.
Missouri vote ignited national push for bans
Missouri was the first state in the country to pass a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage, setting off a stampede of similar votes across the country. At least 30 other states passed gay-marriage bans, although some have been challenged in court.
Missouri’s 2004 battle over the issue also offers a striking illustration of how national opinion appears to have shifted.
In 2004, Gov. Bob Holden was a Democrat often under siege with the Republicans who were eager to press a conservative agenda after just recently taking control of the General Assembly for the first time in decades.
Legislators passed the resolution putting the gay-marriage ban on the statewide ballot that year, and many conservative activists were praising the issue as a way to generate like-minded enthusiasm at the polls – and help then-President George W. Bush carry the state.
After Bush’s narrow victory in 2000, Missouri was seen as a presidential battleground in 2004.
But it’s up to the governor to decide when legislative-generated ballot proposals go before voters. Holden put the proposed gay-marriage ban on the August 2004 ballot, in part, at the behest of national Democrats who feared that if it were on the November ballot, it might doom the statewide chances of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
After Holden put the issue on the August ballot, some conservative groups called for their voters to take a Democratic primary ballot and vote for his primary challenger, Claire McCaskill, then the state auditor. She narrowly defeated Holden that August, with some of his allies saying that gay marriage was partly to blame.
At that time, McCaskill – like Holden -- had opposed the constitutional amendment. But she did so on the grounds that she viewed it as unnecessary since Missouri already had a state statute barring gay marriage. Since then, now-U.S. Sen. McCaskill has become a supporter of gay marriage.
Kerry and running-mate John Edwards toured the state just days after Missouri's pro-ban vote, and were deluged with questions about it at every stop. National Democrats quickly viewed the vote as a sign that the Kerry-Edwards ticket had no chance of carrying Missouri. Kerry soon shifted campaign resources to other states.
A.J. Bockelman, executive director of PROMO, Missouri’s chief group lobbying for equality for the LGBT community, was active in the unsuccessful 2004 fight against Missouri's ban. He said there's now no question that 2014 political climate -- nationally and in the state -- has dramatically changed.
As proof, Bockelman pointed to the near-silence from state GOP leaders. He added that he’s noticed the Republican change long before Wednesday’s same-sex marriages at St. Louis City Hall.
“Many of our elected officials in Jefferson City have not taken such strident positions that were so common place in 2004,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, Bockelman asserted that Democrats around the country are increasingly using the gay-marriage issue “as a wedge issue” to galvanize supporters.
Bockelman, by the way, said he personally credits Bush for igniting the national push-back.
Was Bush responsible for mood change?
Soon after Missouri’s 2004 vote, Bush appeared eager to capitalize on the wave of gay-marriage bans sweeping the states. “When George Bush stated that we needed a federal marriage amendment (barring same-sex marriage), it galvanized a community,’’ said Bockelman, adding that gay-rights advocates previously had been split over how aggressively to press the case to allow same-sex marriage.
Bockelman says that Bush “helped us to push and organize a stronger movement” much faster.
As for Koster, Bockelman said, gay-marriage advocates know where his heart lies – and what he must do as Missouri attorney general. “He’s playing the role as a public servant, and we respect that,’’ Bockelman said.
The big question now is whether Koster joins other Democrats at this weekend's annual Pridefest parade in St. Louis. Regardless of who shows up, Bockelman predicted that the mood will be joyous in response to Wednesday's defiance at City Hall of the state's gay-marriage ban.
But Missouri GOP chief Wills cautioned that conservatives will be paying close attention to how vigorously Koster defends Missouri’s same-sex marriage ban. Said Wills: “It’s incumbent upon him to not mix the stream of what is politics, and what his duties are.”