The Aug. 15 shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, has provoked an outpouring of concern from social conservatives. It wasn’t just the crime, which people of all political stripes condemned. The aftermath has highlighted the feeling of besiegement from opponents of gay marriage, who feel their values are being increasingly marginalized across the U.S. As more and more Americans support gay marriage, they say, the national public has exhibited hostility toward groups that do not support gay rights.
A day after Floyd Corkins, 28, allegedly entered the FRC’s Washington headquarters with a Sig Sauer pistol and shot the building manager who subdued him, Tony Perkins, the group’s president, blamed a top left-leaning group for inciting violence against their conservative counterparts. “Corkins was responsible for firing the shot yesterday that wounded one of our colleagues and our friends, Leo Johnson. But Corkins was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that have been reckless in labeling an organization a ‘hate group’ because they disagree with them on public policy,” Perkins said at a Thursday afternoon press conference. “I believe the Southern Poverty Law Center should be held accountable for their reckless use of terminology that is leading to the intimidation and [to] what the FBI here has categorized as an act of domestic terrorism.”
Blaming the Southern Poverty Law Center for a rogue shooter’s actions may seem incendiary. But to hear social conservatives tell it, blistering language is regularly used to malign their values as well. “The fallback position now for supporters of gay marriage is that if you believe that marriage is between a man and a woman—which has been the default position for the past thousands of years—that somehow makes you the equivalent of a Klan supporter in the 1950s and ’60s, which I think is absurd,” former FRC president and Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer tells TIME. “The demonizing of people who believe in normal marriage has to stop.”
Penny Nance, president of the Concerned Women for America, which promotes Biblical principles in public policy, feels similarly. “The language that is used constantly towards us by people who disagree with us on the marriage issue is so caustic, so over the top,” she says. “The fact that we want to preserve the traditional view of marriage does not imply that we dislike—God forbid, hate—people who identify as homosexual.” After she and her colleagues heard about the shooting at the FRC, Nance says, they stopped and prayed for the FRC staff and for the shooter. Then the possibilities of the shooter’s motive started to sink in. “When you have people calling you a hate group,” she says, “ in some cases it can encourage people who are marginalized or having mental health issues.”
This summer’s debates over marriage equality, fanned by Barack Obama’s declaration in support of gay marriage, have been particularly heated, from the Chick-fil-A controversy to the New Mexico photographer taken to court for refusing to photograph a lesbian wedding. According to a police affidavit, the alleged shooter at the FRC, who was charged with assault with intent to kill, was carrying 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches in his bag at the time of the attack.
Jennifer Marshall, Director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, argues supporters of same-sex marriage have left little breathing room for people who hold different views. “The examples that we have seen this summer are disappointing,” says Marshall. “There needs to be more recognition that it is reasonable that marriage should remain between one man and one woman—the voters in 32 states have reached that conclusion where that question has been put.”
The presidential election—and the divergent visions for the U.S. set forth by the two candidates—has also heightened the urgency social conservatives feel. “Liberal politicians have a particular obligation to discipline a movement whose support they solicit,” Bauer says. President Obama did not comment on the shooting on the campaign trail in Iowa on Wednesday, though press secretary Jay Carney said Obama “expressed his concern for the individual injured in the shooting and his strong belief that this type of violence has no place in our society.” Mitt Romney took a more direct approach, issuing a statement saying that he was “appalled” at the shooting: “My prayers go out to the wounded security guard and his family, as well as all the people at the Family Research Council whose sense of security has been shattered by today’s horrific events.”
In the meantime, social conservative organizations are stepping up their security efforts. Nance says that she will immediately begin bringing security in tow when she travels. “I have two children—I am not taking any chances.” The Heritage Foundation issued a statement saying that while it seems that the FRC shooting was an isolated event, Heritage has plans in place should a similar scenario occur. Nathan Oppman, a newly hired FRC intern coordinator, expressed gratitude to Johnson, who had taken him on a welcome tour just the day before. “Guy gets shot and still protects the building, he’s a hero in my book,” Oppman says, “and I was a beneficiary of that.”
Left-leaning groups have roundly condemned the violent act of a lone perpetrator, and the SPLC bristled Thursday at Perkins’ attempt to assign them blame. “Perkins’ accusation is outrageous,” senior fellow Mark Potok said in a statement. “The SPLC has listed the FRC as a hate group since 2010 because it has knowingly spread false and denigrating propaganda about LGBT people — not, as some claim, because it opposes same-sex marriage. The FRC and its allies on the religious right are saying, in effect, that offering legitimate and fact-based criticism in a democratic society is tantamount to suggesting that the objects of criticism should be the targets of criminal violence.”
The sense of victimhood among opponents of gay marriage may be partially attributable to the fact that support for their views is eroding. Half of all Americans believe same-sex marriages should be validated by law with the same rights as traditional marriages, according to a May Gallup poll–nearly twice as many as 1996, when only 27% of Americans supported legal same-sex marriage. Support for same-sex marriage rights is particularly strong among young people. As the number of Americans who view marriage as a sacred rite between one woman and one man wanes, social conservatives fear that left-leaning groups may drown out their voice altogether. “We are willing to have the conversation on the merits and the policy,” says Nance. “If you’ll let us.”