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Over the past decade, she has become one of the nation's leading voices in the fight against gay marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. Maggie Gallagher, conservative columnist, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Our next guest tonight, Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Maggie Gallagher, I want to start with you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The passionately outspoken Maggie Gallagher is president of...

BLOCK: As the Supreme Court prepares to weigh in on the issue, Maggie Gallagher is also preparing for what might come next. NPR's Tovia Smith has this profile of a leading voice in America's culture war.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Maggie Gallagher likes to call herself an accidental activist. After graduating Yale in '82, she thought she'd write about important things like money and war, but never fathomed she'd end up on TV every night in the middle of a war zone over gay marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: So you're saying say same-sex marriages are inherently less stable?

MAGGIE GALLAGHER: You think this is a question about gay couples, and for me it's a question about marriage.

SMITH: Indeed, Gallagher only started speaking out against gay marriage in 2003, when she says she could no longer avoid it. She'd already spent the past decade writing about marriage in general, how the sexual revolution, feminism and divorce were threatening the institution and children. It was a crusade driven by her own experience as an unwed mother and the pain she saw in her own son.

GALLAGHER: By time he was 2, he was asking where his dad was. And I think it's wrong to deliberately create a child consciously depriving them of either their mother or father.

SMITH: Gallagher's beef with gay marriage is actually more practical than moral or religious though she is a practicing Catholic. If you believe that kids need a mom and a dad, she argues, you simply can't at the same time endorse same-sex marriage. And if you do send the message that a married mom and dad is not really critical, she insists, more kids will end up hurt.

GALLAGHER: I don't like saying this in one way because it's not like a contest. But in truth, the suicide rates of teenagers whose parents divorce are elevated at about same rates as teenagers who are LGBT. But we don't hear much about the one, and we hear a lot about the other. You know, Lady Gaga is not making songs about it.

SMITH: It's exactly why Gallagher says she's focusing now on what she calls culture creating. She's not quitting the fight, she says, but rather making sure that even if the legal battle ends, the fight will go on.

GALLAGHER: I'm thinking more hard about how do we sustain ideal of marriage that I care about if this idea is treated as the moral and legal equivalent of racism in the public square. Do you still get butterflies when you speak?

JOHN CORVINO: Sometimes.

SMITH: Just before a recent gay marriage debate at Saddleback College, Gallagher chitchats with her opponent: philosophy professor John Corvino, a gay man and gay marriage advocate, who is also her co-author on the book "Debating Same-Sex Marriage" and a friend.

CORVINO: That's the cake that Mark made for a dinner party last weekend. Mark's...

GALLAGHER: Oh, my God. He's multitalented.

CORVINO: Yes, he's very talented.

SMITH: Up on stage, Corvino says he's often asked how he, as a gay man, can be friends with someone who's fighting against his rights.

CORVINO: And the answer to that question is very simple: I drink.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: It's a crowd that overwhelmingly favors gay marriage, but Gallagher, as tough as she is sharp, pulls no punches.

GALLAGHER: We need a social institution for attaching fathers to the mother-child bond and for communicating to young people in the midst of their sexual, romantic, erotic dramas that they have a serious responsibility.

SMITH: Inevitably, students with questions aim mostly at Gallagher.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To me that's very, very offensive. I see this as a human rights issue.

SMITH: Gallagher is unapologetic.

GALLAGHER: The fact that you find it offensive, that cannot stop me from talking for these children on this issue because I think it's too important. I'm...

SMITH: As it tends to be these days, Gallagher spends less time making her case against gay marriage than she does trying to convince people that there's even a legitimate case to be made.

GALLAGHER: I have always believed that gay people are human beings with human dignity who need to be treated with respect. But that's different from, you know, having a foundational norm that says there is no morally relevant difference between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. And if you see one, you're like a bigot who's opposed to interracial marriage.

SMITH: You'd figure being on the front line would have to take a toll on Gallagher, but if so, she doesn't show it.

GALLAGHER: You know, I'm not worried about me. Maggie is fine. Everything is cool. I do worry about other people. I worry when I get an email from woman who's a nurse in a hospital, who wrote a letter to the editor opposing gay marriage and finds that she fears her job is in jeopardy.

SMITH: Gallagher has earned respect from some on the other side for being smart, well-intentioned and pretty good about the facts. But even those admirers balk at her claim that gay marriage opponents are being victimized.

JONATHAN RAUCH, SENIOR FELLOW, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I mean, Barack Obama was against gay marriage until less than a year ago and no one went around saying the guy's a bigot.

SMITH: Jonathan Rauch, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who's also friendly with Gallagher, says it is true that the shifting moral consensus is leaving gay marriage opponents in a position that gays know all too well.

INSTITUTION: I don't think what Maggie has had is a fraction of what gay people have had. That said, it's still difficult when you feel that society is just not getting it. I know it's hard. I've been there.

SMITH: It's easier to feel empathetic, Rauch says, knowing that Gallagher is not motivated by animus, but knowing her to be intelligent and thoughtful can also be more exasperating.

INSTITUTION: This is major blind spot.

SMITH: John Corvino, Gallagher's co-author, says if her goal is to strengthen marriage, Gallagher should want everyone to marry. It's a paradox that's troubled him since their very first conversation.

CORVINO: I pulled out my cellphone at one point and showed her a picture of my partner, Mark, and he's got this great smile. And she looked at the picture, and she said, Oh, I can see why you call him home. He's home for you. And I thought to myself, well, wait a second? How can you get the fact that Mark is home for me and then spend your life fighting to make it the case that legally speaking Mark cannot be home for me?

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE RINGING)

GALLAGHER: Wait a second. Hello?

SMITH: What Gallagher will never understand, however, is how gay marriage could ever be considered marriage. She's focusing now on new ways to strengthen what she calls the culture of marriage through the arts and churches, for example. With several polls now showing public support for gay marriage over 50 percent and growing, Gallagher says she's less optimistic about her cause than she used to be but still holds on to hope.

GALLAGHER: I was told when I was young that there would be no more people opposing abortion and that communism was the inevitable way of future. And so, you know, I - first of all, I just don't believe in inevitability.

SMITH: Gallagher has, however, adjusted for the possibility. A decade after declaring that gay marriage was threatening civilization, her mission has evolved: from staving off the threat to making the world safe for dissent. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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