WASHINGTON -- As gay couples fight for the right to wed, a little-known but determined force is working to stop them: Brian S. Brown, a 39-year-old father of eight who has raised millions of dollars from religious conservatives -- especially his fellow Roman Catholics -- to become the nation's leading opponent of same-sex marriage.
Mr. Brown, president of the nonprofit National Organization for Marriage here, was instrumental in passing Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban, and is working in a host of states (and, more recently, in France) to defeat gay-friendly candidates and outlaw what he calls "the redefinition of marriage."
Now his views are facing the ultimate American test: a hearing before the Supreme Court, which is considering whether to overturn Proposition 8 and perhaps declare it unconstitutional.
When the justices hear oral arguments in the case next Tuesday, Mr. Brown -- unfazed by polls showing that a majority of Americans disagree with him -- will be on the court's marble steps, leading a march that he hopes will draw thousands who believe, as he does, that gay unions hurt children and threaten religious freedom.
"The notion that somehow we are on a one-way elevator to gay marriage, and that no matter what anyone does that it's going to happen, is false," he said in a recent interview, in his sparsely decorated suite on K Street, the capital's lobbying corridor. "That is the myth of inevitability."
A California native (he grew up sneaking his surfboard into the pristine stretch of private coastline known as Hollister Ranch near Santa Barbara) Mr. Brown has a youthful, open face and an easy laugh that belie his status as a divisive figure in the culture wars. Raised a Quaker, he converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult, with a passion for traditional marriage that he says is rooted in his faith.
As he said in a debate with Dan Savage, a gay columnist, last summer, "The notion of the uniqueness of men and women is not some side thing in Scripture, it's a key part of our view of humanity: that there are two halves of humanity, male and female, and that we complement each other, and that complementarity bears fruit in children."
Frank Schubert, the marriage organization's national political director, said, "He has a convert's zeal."
Mr. Brown also has a keen sense of strategy and a polished speaking style, traits that unnerve his opponents. When gay rights advocates began calling same-sex marriage a "civil rights issue," Mr. Brown, determined to keep the racial analogy from seeping into popular culture, enlisted black pastors to his cause. In public appearances and on television, he rarely comes across as a renegade, although his tone can grow strident when the audience is familiar.
"When you knock over a core pillar of society like marriage, and then try to redefine biblical views of marriage as bigotry, there will be consequences," Mr. Brown warned last August in a fund-raising letter on his blog. "Will one of the consequences be a serious push to normalize pedophilia?"
Conservative Christian groups have thrown their weight behind Mr. Brown's work. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, donated about $2 million to help get the National Organization for Marriage started. The Mormon Church contributed heavily to the Proposition 8 campaign, and Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, now archbishop of San Francisco, raised money to put the initiative on the ballot.
In an interview, the archbishop said Mr. Brown "understands that civilization rises and falls on marriage."
But gay rights advocates see Mr. Brown as the personification of evil, a man who traffics in distortions and smears with a smile.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which fights intolerance, says the National Organization for Marriage pushes the line of being labeled a hate group because it "continues to spread lies about gays" and uses its Web site to link to debunked research. The Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group, devotes a portion of its Web site, headlined "NOM Exposed," to tracking Mr. Brown and his group.
"Even Governor Wallace in the end came around," said Chad Griffin, the Human Rights Campaign president, referring to George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor.
Mr. Brown grew up in Whittier, Calif., a town with a Quaker background on the border of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, the son of an accountant and a homemaker who split when he was 13, which he said "probably had some effect" on his thinking about marriage.
Maggie Gallagher, his predecessor as the marriage organization's president and the author of a book about the dangers of divorce, said that Mr. Brown "shares a lot of characteristics of children of divorce" who as adults make "a really firm commitment to do something different for their children."
Mr. Brown played football, ran the Republican Club and was president of the student body at Whittier College, where he threw himself into the history of conservative political thought and read theorists like Edmund Burke and Friederich Hayek.
"He was somebody I expected great things from," said Frederic Bergerson, one of his political science professors.
In the summer of 1996, just after graduation, Mr. Brown arrived in the Michigan village of Mecosta for research on the conservative thinker Russell Kirk. Over fireside talks in a scholarly center housed in Kirk's ancestral home, he immersed himself in Kirk's notion that "permanent things" -- family and church -- form the foundation of a healthy society.
When a roommate introduced him to Catholic teachings, Mr. Brown plunged in and eventually converted.
"He was looking for history, roots, understanding of what is true culture," said Annette Kirk, Russell's widow.
Mr. Brown obtained a second degree at Oxford, returned to the United States to marry a woman he met through his childhood pastor, and later went to the University of California, Los Angeles, to pursue a doctorate. But he gave up academia for activism when offered a job at the Family Institute of Connecticut, where he worked, ultimately unsuccessfully, to stop a 2005 Connecticut law that allowed same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.
There, Mr. Brown's work attracted the attention of Ms. Gallagher, who by then had begun to worry that social conservatives like herself would be outmatched by organized gay rights supporters. She recalls meeting Mr. Brown at a conference in Philadelphia.
"He said we needed a Club for Growth for marriage," she said, referring to the advocacy group that promotes economic freedom. "He got the strategic need."
With the help of Robert P. George, a conservative scholar at Princeton, they founded the National Organization for Marriage in 2007, with Ms. Gallagher as president (she has since stepped down) and Mr. Brown as executive director.
If same-sex marriage becomes a cultural norm, Mr. Brown says, heterosexual couples will no longer have preference over gay men and lesbians in adoptions, schoolchildren will be taught that same-sex parenting is normal, and those who oppose it will be labeled bigots. Already he worries about his safety and that of his handful of employees, which is why there is a security lock on his office door.
"Children are taught in kindergarten, first grade, that it's the same thing to grow up and marry a boy as to marry a girl," he said in a recent interview on C-Span. "That is a profound consequence."
Aside from the big victory in California (Mr. Brown moved his family there for a year to help pass Proposition 8), his group helped unseat three Iowa Supreme Court justices who overturned a ban against same-sex marriage there, and helped lead last year's successful effort to ban same-sex marriage in North Carolina. But since 2009, gay men and lesbians have won the right to marry in the District of Columbia and eight states.
Although his track record is now mixed, Mr. Brown is convinced his big victory will come at the United States Supreme Court.
"No way the court is going to launch another Roe v. Wade," he said, referring to the 1973 decision that made abortion legal. But whatever the outcome, he said, there will be more battles, either in the courts or in legislatures, and he intends to fight them.
"If we were to lose, would it be difficult?'' he asked, before quickly answering his own question. "Of course it would be difficult. But we're never going away."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.