By Aamer Madhani
Tuscon Citizen
November 06, 2011

A group of high-profile Democrats and Republicans who back legalizing gay marriage are calling on advocates to shift the focus on the issue from an argument about equal rights to promoting the value of commitment.

The “Commitment Campaign,” which is spearheaded by the centrist Democrat group Third Way and will be publicly launched today, has won support from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat; Rhode
Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent and former Republican; former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican; and Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Advocates have long made the case that legalizing marriage for gays and lesbians is a matter of equality. But those who frame the issue that way might be reinforcing a belief among many Americans in the middle on the issue that gays and lesbians want to marry for different reasons than straight couples, according to polling by Third Way and Grove Insight.

When asked why “couples like you” might want to marry, 58% said to “publicly acknowledge their love and commitment to each other.” When asked why gays and lesbians may want to marry, the respondents split between “love and commitment” and “rights and benefits.”

“In this fast-evolving issue, we’re all searching for common ground,” O’Malley told USA TODAY ahead of the campaign launch. “And the way to have a conversation with those who would be inclined not to support marriage equality is to search for those common values that we share.”

Charles Moran, chairman of the California Log Cabin Republicans, said there has been a “fundamental flaw” in the way that the lesbian, gay and transgendered community has framed the issue in the past and has led to 31 straight defeats in ballot initiatives across the country. “This is a real radical way of changing the approach in communicating why gay marriage equality is important,” said Moran, who supports the commitment campaign.

The launch of the campaign comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares this week to consider a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, and as several states — including Maryland, Minnesota and North Carolina— are likely to consider legislation or ballot initiatives on gay marriage in 2012.

Some gay rights advocates, including the Human Rights Campaign, have started reframing their messaging. Last month, the group launched an Internet ad campaign in which prominent African-American leaders — such as former NAACP leader Julian Bond— note that gay and lesbian couples “have the same values as everyone else — love, commitment and stable families.” African Americans voted overwhelmingly against a 2008 California ballot initiative to legalize gay marriage.

Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, said the New York State Assembly’s passage of gay marriage legislation this year marked a pivotal point and that the issue will be battled in the courts. Winning broad support will be crucial to winning the legal battle, Cowan said.

“There is no question when the Supreme Court makes a decision on an important social issue that one of the factors that they look at is where the country is,” he said. “If we stick with a rights and benefits framework, we will ultimately not be able to win over enough of the middle of the country that we need to prevail.”