Religious culture wars erupt constantly in this country, in squabbles over reciting prayers in government meetings, putting Christian monuments on public property, mentioning God in the Pledge of Allegiance -- even over God's opinion about building a gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48 states. (Sarah Palin says He backs the pipeline.)
Gay rights and abortion are the two fiercest battlegrounds. But since a basic right to abortion was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, abortion foes have only been able to chip fragments off that right (requiring underage girls to get permission from a parent, and so on); they also push for appointing sympathetic Supreme Court justices who could theoretically overturn Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, gay marriage has gradually taken on more importance.
Overt conflicts over legislating the rights of gays and lesbians began some three decades ago, and ever since, the West has been a fierce battleground. In the early 1990s, liberal-leaning Colorado cities and the state government made laws protecting gays from housing and employment discrimination. In response, anti-gay religious forces successfully pushed a 1992 amendment to the Colorado Constitution, stating that gays could not be considered a minority and therefore could not claim discrimination. That earned Colorado an ugly nickname -- "The Hate State" -- until 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
James Dobson, the right-wing evangelical who runs the Focus on the Family group, moved his headquarters from California to Colorado Springs in 1991 and rode the anti-gay campaign to worldwide prominence. Today, Dobson has a daily TV show, and his daily radio program runs on more than 5,000 stations. When he mobilized his followers against abortion-rights Democratic senators running for re-election several years ago, The New York Times crowned him as "the nation's most influential evangelical leader ... (showing) a new level of direct partisan engagement."
The West's reputation for anti-gayness was furthered by the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. Two homophobic men tied Shepard to a fence outside Laramie, pistol-whipped him and left him to die. The murder became the basis for a widely performed play and documentary movie -- The Laramie Project -- and other movies and books also helped raise awareness about the struggles of gays and lesbians. Many governments around the country have responded by passing laws prohibiting discrimination against gay people.
The anti-gay religious forces have tried to hold the line on marriage. In 1996, they pushed the Defense of Marriage Act through a then-Republican Congress. The law says that the federal government does not recognize gay marriage, and that all states are not required to recognize gay marriages held in the few states that allow it (at the moment, only Massachusetts, Connecticut and California do). Anti-gay advocates have also pushed laws banning gay marriage in many states, including Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. The bans prevent gays from getting married in courthouses, and prevent pro-gay-marriage preachers from performing ceremonies. Gay-rights advocates have pushed back, winning compromises, mainly an increasing acceptance of domestic partnerships or "civil unions." Civil unions can provide some of the rights inherent in marriage, but it's complicated; for couples trying to share health insurance, for instance, it depends on interactions of many different state laws and insurance companies' policies. Even many Democrats -- the party that gets the most gay votes -- feel compelled to take stands against gay marriage. Although he supports civil unions, Barack Obama, for instance, describes marriage as "a union between a man and a woman. ... For me as a Christian, it is a sacred union. God's in the mix."
Today, the West's key players on gay marriage include the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit lawfirm based in Scottsdale, Ariz. It has 40 lawyers on staff, according to its Web site, and works with "nearly 1,100 attorneys nationwide" advocating for a Christian presence in national parks, city council meetings and other venues. The Alliance Defense Fund often goes to court against gay marriage, and represents the "Yes on Proposition 8" campaign in California. "God has granted us an amazing opportunity to serve Him" in courtrooms, the firm says. "God created marriage as the unity of one man and one woman. This has been both the legal and traditional understanding of a marriage … for millennia, since Eden. … There is no more critical battle for our nation's future."
On the other side, the West is home to groups such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Based in Albuquerque, N.M., it challenges the growing evangelical Christian influence inside the U.S. military. Generals and other officers often pressure soldiers to join in Christian prayers and read the Bible -- even to play Christian video games. And the military's evangelical tone includes "virulent homophobia," says the group's founder, Mikey Weinstein. He's a Jewish graduate of the Air Force Academy, a lawyer and registered Republican, who speaks rapid-fire about "religious predation by military superiors (who are) fundamentalist Christians -- the draconian specter of military command influence" being used to commit "spiritual rape."
More than 9,000 active and retired military people -- including gays and lesbians in uniform, "highly decorated combat vets" and generals -- have complained to Weinstein's group about the pressure they face, he says. The group currently has two lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Defense in an attempt to make the military evangelicals back off. The group's supporters include former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm and the California Council of Churches IMPACT group, which represents more than 5,000 churches serving 21 Protestant denominations. "We have some gay people on the advisory board" of the group, Weinstein says, and "it's possible -- though not on our scope right now" that someday he'll go to court specifically to try to force the military to be more accepting of gays and gay marriage. "Anybody who is against gay rights," he says, "is an enemy of ours."
And a basic regional character trait can mean rough going for the anti-gay forces: Westerners in general show a remarkable skepticism toward organized religion. Oregon is the least church-going state in the country, with 27 percent of its adults saying they're unaffiliated with any religion. Washington, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado all rank above 20 percent, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Forum on Religion & Public Life. (Only New England rivals the West in the rate of rejecting organized religion.)