While some conservatives oppose gay marriage, others do not. For conservatives who do oppose it, the issue has less to do with homophobia and more to do with protecting the Judeo-Christian view of marriage.
On Nov. 4, 2008, voters in Arizona, California and Florida struck down gay marriage in their states. The most widely publicized of these referendums was Proposition 8 in California.
Gay rights advocates protested everywhere, rallying their liberal friends and blaming conservatives for their support of the bans.
While it is true that social conservatives have been on the front lines of wedge issues like this for time out of mind, not all conservatives are as deeply passionate about them as others. In fact, a large portion of the conservative movement -- fiscal conservatives and crunchy conservatives, for example -- may find themselves disagreeing with social conservatives on issues like gay marriage.
Nevertheless, simply identifying as a conservative is enough to earn the vitriol and condemnation of the LGBT movement (that's "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender," for those unfamiliar with the acronym). For the most part, liberals associated with the issue aren't interested in hearing conservative opinions. The few that are only listen so they can refute them.
Most gay rights advocates voice opinions of their own. "Conservatives are motivated by homophobia [or hate]," they say. "Conservatives use their religion as a way to oppose gay marriage," others opine. Still others believe that "conservatives don't harbor the same hatred for divorced people, vandals, or other 'sinners.' They have a special hatred for gays and lesbians."
Comments like these force even those who have no particular sentiment either way to take up sides and defend their loosely-held convictions (whether they lean to the right or the left on this issue). Frankly, "I don't support gay marriage" is not the same as "I hate gays," and those on the left are frequently too blinded by their advocacy to know it. Those that do simply refuse to acknowledge it.
Not everyone who opposes gay marriage is a "homophobe," and not everyone who opposes gay marriage "hates" people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered. By branding the religious end of an entire conservative movement as "hateful," the people making such remarks come off as "hateful" of conservatives. It boils the issue down to one or the other, without considering those in between.
For many people (not just religious conservatives), marriage is a sacred symbol of heterosexual love and commitment. Seeing it changed in such a profound way would be like the National Rifle Association suddenly claiming the rainbow flag as its symbol. Just as this would change the meaning of the flag in a way that is unpleasant to the LGBT community, so too would gay marriage change the meaning of marriage to a large part of the married community.
There is a common misconception among those on the Left that the Constitution mandates a clear "separation of church and state," yet that language is nowhere to be found in the document. The phrase was taken from a letter by Thomas Jefferson and bound into law by an activist Supreme Court in 1878.
The Constitution deals with the issue of religion via the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise clause. In the former case, Congress cannot pass laws based on religious principles and in the latter, the government cannot keep people from practicing their religion. If a federal amendment nationalizing the practice of gay marriage were to be passed, many conservatives believe it would be an example of government interfering with their right to practice their religion. Worse yet, many believe passage of such an amendment would be akin to the government changing a basic tenet of their religion, not unlike forcing Orthodox Jews to eat pork or forcing Catholics to use something other than water in their baptisms. Passing such an amendment would not only reduce the covenant of marriage to a bureaucratic rubber stamp, it would also bastardize the holiness of it.
As it relates to the federal government, the trouble begins with how marriage is treated. There are very few mainstream or common-sense conservatives who will argue that a gay person's life-partner shouldn't be afforded the same rights as a married person's spouse, especially in instances where one of the parties is ill. The trouble with existing federal law is that it recognizes the institution of marriage, which is a holy, religious practice. While atheists will argue marriage is a legal covenant, most conservatives (and even many liberals) will concede that it is an act of religion. Most mainstream conservatives believe that civil unions would be a better way for the federal government to bestow benefits on couples.
While there are many conservatives who believe the institution of marriage should be defended as a covenant between a man and a woman, many more believe that the federal government shouldn't be dealing with the subject at all. Their main opposition to the push by gay rights advocates for a federal "gay marriage" amendment is one of jurisdiction. A large majority of conservatives believe the gay marriage issue is a states' rights issue since there is no explicit language regarding the subject in the Constitution. According to the Tenth Amendment (Article X of the Bill of Rights), "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Just as states such as Arizona, California and Florida have banned gay marriages in their states, there undoubtedly would be states in the U.S. that would permit the practice. For the majority of conservatives, this is fine as long as the voters of these states are the ones making the decisions (not the lawmakers).
For most mainstream conservatives, gay marriage isn't the issue it is for social conservatives. While there is a crossover for many on the right, political conservatism is less about wedge issues and more about limiting the size and scope of government, building a strong national defense and enabling the freedom of enterprise.