Craig Shirley

On Election Day in 1978, Republican State Senator John Briggs of California surveyed the wreckage of his political career. Briggs was the sponsor of Proposition 6, a ban on homosexuals teaching in the Golden State's public school system. Prop. 6 had been soundly defeated.

Although early polling showed widespread support for the Briggs proposal, this support eroded over the summer and fall of 1978, partially because of the unexpected – unexpected by Briggs, anyway – opposition from former California Governor Ronald Reagan.

A self-described “libertarian-conservative,” Reagan found the proposal offensive. He viewed it as a violation of privacy, and believed it could subject law-abiding teachers to blackmail. After initially sidestepping the issue, Reagan ultimately spoke out forcefully against Proposition 6. Briggs, who had hoped to ride the amendment to the California governorship, was asked by reporters who was to blame for its ignominious defeat, and he simply replied: “Ronald Reagan.”

At the time, Reagan was preparing for his third try for the GOP presidential nomination. Success in the 1980 Republican primaries entailed staving off incursions from George H. W. Bush, John Connally and Bob Dole, all of whom courted the support of the emerging Christian Right This newly powerful faction backed the Briggs Amendment, but Reagan did not waver.

No one will ever know for sure, but given his principles and intellectual courage, one could imagine why Reagan might also have found fault with the “Marriage Amendment” to the Constitution supported by some Republicans including George W. Bush.

Reagan saw the Constitution as a brilliant document because it does not outline what the citizenry cannot do; rather it stipulates what government cannot do. It is a mechanical document of negative governance. The Marriage Amendment runs contrary to the principles of the Constitution and is offensive both intellectually and historically, like the silly proposal to ban flag burning.

The issue is moot until the Supreme Court takes up the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which preserves federalism in marriage. The simple solution to prevent gay marriages in America is for Congress to regulate the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, so that no appeal of the DOMA could be heard. DOMA was passed by the Congress and signed by Bill Clinton for the express purpose of allowing the states to regulate marriage. But this solution is less attractive politically to those who wish to fire up the Christian troops through a brawl over amending the Constitution.

Craig Shirley

Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer, a presidential historian and Chairman of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs. His firm is assisting Scott Walker’s presidential campaign.