For Better or Worse: Micah Clark on Gay Marriage

As the drumbeat for defeating a constitutional ban on gay marriage grows louder, one of the ban’s most ardent supporters is strangely quiet. But that doesn’t mean he has changed his mind.
“Protecting your family. Defending your values. Standing for decency.”

These have never been small tasks. But last October, Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, found himself taking on an additional duty: tech support. Glitches were part and parcel of a recent move to a second-floor space alongside chiropractors, insurance agents, and accountants in a mundane Nora office park. One of the state’s leading socially conservative voices was vexed by voicemail. Erratic e-mail, too.

However minor, the technical setbacks came on top of a string of public ones for Clark and his Christian-right advocacy group during their ongoing efforts to sway support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage—once known as House Joint Resolution 6 and since renamed HJR-3—in Indiana. Days earlier, the Indy Chamber, a collection of almost 3,000 businesses in Central Indiana, announced its opposition to the proposed ban, joining Clark’s chief rival, Freedom Indiana. The bipartisan coalition, which counts engine-manufacturer Cummins and drugmaker Eli Lilly (two of the state’s largest employers) as members, then trumpeted the addition of another ally: Indiana University. That would eventually goose most of the state’s other institutions of higher learning to align with Freedom Indiana as well.

Come hell or high water, though, Clark has defended “traditional marriage” for the past 12 years.

As disasters small and large swirl about him, the 46-year-old—fingers clasped and resting on his stomach—calmly argues for the amendment from behind the desk of his semi-functioning office. “In some ways, I’m a live-and-let-live guy,” Clark says. “Law is the teacher. Whatever the law says is okay. Public perception has a huge effect on people. If traditional marriage loses its meaning, then it becomes whatever anyone desires.”

He picks apart a poll by WISH-TV and Ball State University showing that 64 percent of Hoosiers oppose the amendment. He rejects the notion that a ban would hamstring the state economy; the top five states for job growth according to a Kiplinger report, he says, have “marriage-protection amendments.” He completely discounts Freedom Indiana’s perceived public momentum. Bang. Bang. Bang.

When asked why social conservatives have yet to field a pro–amendment coalition to equal the opposition and a public champion to lead them, Clark’s answer surprises.

But when asked why social conservatives have yet to field a pro–amendment coalition to equal the opposition and a public champion to lead them, his answer surprises.

“Someone will emerge,” says Clark, who adds that he spends a great deal of time speaking to church groups and civic organizations about the issue.

Who? You?

“I would hope it would be someone other than me,” he says. “Let’s let the people vote on this. I’d like to move on to other issues.”

If Clark, the grandson of a Southern Baptist minister, suddenly seems demure, it is certainly a departure from a public life spent as a firebrand. Clark equated IU’s plan to extend employee benefits to same-sex couples with “subsidizing homosexual sex among its staff” in 2002 and complained when Lilly made a similar move a year later. In 2005, he went after then–Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi, a Republican, for endorsing a “homosexual agenda” when Brizzi pushed to add sexual orientation to the office’s anti-discrimination policy. A tuxedo was at the center of a 2009 flap, when a 17-year-old girl sued the Lebanon school system because the principal told her she couldn’t wear one to prom. “A girl in a tuxedo doing this as a sexual statement,” Clark said at the time, “that’s something the school should draw a line at.” A year later, he came to the rescue of a local bakery that refused to make rainbow-iced confections for an IUPUI group on “National Coming Out Day.” In an editorial in The Indianapolis Star, he wrote: “Tolerance no longer means diversity of opinion; it means embrace of homosexual politics and beliefs, or else.”

His background speaks to this sort of activism. He grew up in Kempton, Indiana, a small community southwest of Kokomo. Clark’s father was a lumber salesman who had a workshop in the family’s garage and built most of the furniture in their home.
His mother taught in a public school in Kokomo, while Clark and his sister (she’s an attorney who has done work for James Dobson’s Focus on the Family) attended a Christian school. In addition to religious instruction, Clark remembers being fed a steady diet of history and current events at the family dinner table. “We discussed news headlines the way some people talked about sports,” he says.

Clark studied political science at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri while working summers at McDonald’s, a job he had held since high school. After graduating in 1989, he landed an internship with the Indiana House of Representatives’ Republican staff, and then became an assistant campaign manager for state senator Steven Johnson, a Republican from Kokomo. “It was a nice title,” Clark says, “for a kid who didn’t know what he was doing.”

The campaign led to a spot with Citizens Concerned for the Constitution (now Advance Indiana), where Clark worked as a legislative assistant under the organization’s 63-year-old founder, Eric Miller, a powerbroker who has pushed a “pro-family, pro-church, pro–tax reform” agenda in Indiana since 1980. Eventually, Clark left to become the director of public policy at the Indiana Family Institute and later was named its executive director. (Clark’s wife of 15 years is a marriage and family therapist at a Christian counseling center. “She deals with the problem on a micro level, and I take care of the macro level,” he says. “I can quote the stats. She can quote the names.”) In 2001, he took his current position with the AFA of Indiana.

When asked about same-sex marriage today, he says he worries that the controversy has gotten to the point where he and like-minded supporters are considered “bigots.” Sheila Kennedy, a professor of law and policy at IUPUI whose blog has become a must-read for local politicos, believes that’s a legitimate concern. Clark has been the subject of several of Kennedy’s posts, one of which recently offered this sarcastic beginning: “It’s a bitch having to share the country
with other people.”

According to Kennedy, who ran for Congress as a Republican in 1980, the state’s three leading social conservatives—Clark, Advance Indiana’s Miller, and the Indiana Family Institute’s Curt Smith—are losing the public debate. “I’ve never seen an issue move so rapidly,” says the 72-year-old, who spent 35 years in the GOP. In 2000, she switched her allegiance because she felt Republicans had shifted too far right. The Indiana Stonewall Democrats held a “coming out” party for her. “When I was young, no one knew gay people, or at least that’s what we thought,” she says. “Gay guys were the ones wearing feather boas in bars, right? It was so easy to demonize then, when you didn’t know anyone like that—the scary other. But the Micah Clarks of the world have been undercut because we’re not talking about the scary other any more. We’ve learned that gay people are Aunt Gladys and that person I used to think was her roommate.” Kennedy, however, acknowledged that while “the Micah Clarks are losing their steam” on the issue, “they’re still able to terrify Republicans.”

As it stands nationwide, same-sex marriage is legal in 17 states, banned in 32 others, and pending in Utah. But there’s no question that the momentum has shifted.

All of which leads Hoosiers to the next battleground: the Statehouse. At press time, the Indiana General Assembly was again addressing the proposal for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Rep. Eric Turner, a Republican from Cicero, and Rep. David Cheatham, a Democrat from North Vernon, began the process in 2011 when they authored HJR-6—an amendment that would make marriages illegal between same-sex couples and prohibit the state from granting or recognizing civil unions between gay couples. The original resolution received widespread approval (it passed 70-26 in the House and 40-10 in the Senate), and it needed only a simple majority in both chambers (a separately elected body from the 2011 group) again this year to send a referendum to Hoosier voters in November.

As it stands nationwide, same-sex marriage is currently legal in 17 states, banned in 32 others, and pending in Utah. But there’s no question that the momentum has shifted—16 of the 17 have legalized it in the last five years, including two of the states in that Kiplinger report Clark cited. Proponents of HJR-3, like Clark, want to uphold the institution of traditional marriage in Indiana. Opponents say the amendment is overkill and would weaken the state’s ability to attract and retain business and talent.

“I’m confident most in the legislature don’t want to deal with this issue,” says Freedom Indiana campaign manager Megan Robertson, a gay woman who in the past has worked for the Indiana Republican Party, for the Marion County Republican Party, and on two GOP presidential campaigns. She believes many conservative legislators would rather concentrate on the economy, jobs, and education. But she notes that the amendment is far from doomed: “There’s potential for this issue to go either way.”

Prior to the session, lawmakers discussed the possibility of removing the second sentence from the proposed amendment, which reads: “Only marriage between one (1) man and one (1) woman will be valid or recognized as a marriage in Indiana. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.” Such a compromise might have made both sides happy (or miserable): Indiana would have reinforced its definition of traditional marriage while acknowledging the validity of same-sex civil unions. Normally, if the amendment were adjusted, it would restart the entire process. But it was thought that eliminating language might fly.

But last week, supporters in the Assembly instead renamed the proposed amendment HJR-3 and attached a companion bill intended to allay concerns over that tricky second sentence. “Unfortunately, instead of addressing the amendment’s defects through proper channels, they’re trying to sidestep and obfuscate the process,” Robertson countered in a statement released by  Freedom Indiana. It is unclear what effect the move would have on the amendment’s susceptibility to future legal challenges.

Ultimately, IUPUI’s Kennedy thinks politicians from some of the state’s rural areas will feel pressure to side with social conservatives, and some might be threatened by potential primary challenges (February 7 is the deadline to file). “If you could take a secret vote, I’m convinced this would go away,” she says. “But you can’t.” Which means that even as public support for a Constitutional ban loses ground, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if legislators voted for a referendum by the date this is printed.

As for Clark, credit his recent reticence on the issue with the mounting odds that he might lose this fight. If the referendum fails, he doesn’t want the entire reputation of the American Family Association to fail with it. So his tack has been to defer to the voters. “It’s time to turn this over to the people—not the courts or Hollywood or anyone else,” he says. “It’s such a fundamental issue.”

Kennedy knows that’s probably not the outcome HJR-3 opponents want, but she insists there is reason for optimism. “There won’t be any high-profile races in November, so it’s a good year to be at the polls with this issue, which will attract a lot of younger, nontraditional voters,” she says. “Meanwhile, Micah Clark and company will have to wheel their supporters to the voting sites. I’m not discounting the threat, but they’ve already had a hard time energizing the people for whom this is supposed to be a big deal. The wind is against them.”

This article appeared in the February 2014 issue.