- President Bush urged approval of a constitutional amendment
banning gay marriages on Tuesday, pushing a divisive social issue to the
center of the election campaign and setting a clear policy contrast with
Democratic challengers John Kerry and John Edwards.
Bush said "activist judges and local officials" from
Massachusetts to San Francisco to New Mexico were attempting to redefine
marriage and "change the most fundamental institution of
civilization" by allowing same-sex weddings. "On a matter of
such importance, the voice of the people must be heard," he said.
Democrats accused Bush of pandering to right-wing supporters and
tinkering with the Constitution to divert attention from his record on
jobs, health care and foreign policy. "He is looking for a wedge
issue to divide the American people," Kerry said.
Both Kerry and Edwards said they oppose gay marriages but would not
support a constitutional amendment.
Banning gay marriage is a top priority for Bush's conservative
supporters, particularly those among religious and family-oriented groups.
But while a majority of Americans - sometimes by as much as a 2-1 margin -
oppose legalizing gay marriages, Bush's move could hold political risks,
particularly if voters see him as intolerant or question his
self-description as a "compassionate conservative."
"The president needs to worry about fair-minded swing voters in
America, not a Republican base that he has locked up," said Patrick
Guerriero, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group.
Mindful of the high emotions and clear differences on the issue, Bush
said, "We should also conduct this difficult debate in a manner
worthy of our country, without bitterness or anger."
Conservatives were delighted Bush had plunged in. "There is no
more important issue for our nation than the preservation of the
institution of marriage," said Kelly Shackelford, president of the
Texas-based Free Market Foundation, a family advocacy group.
Momentum for a constitutional amendment has grown as San Francisco
officials have performed thousands of same-sex marriages and have
challenged their state law barring such unions. In Massachusetts, the
state's highest court has ruled that a state law falling short of allowing
full-fledged marriage for gays would be unconstitutional.
Bush softened his announcement by leaving the door open for states to
legalize civil unions, which gay rights groups say is an insufficient
alternative to marriage. "The amendment should fully protect marriage
while leaving the state legislatures free to make their own choices in
defining legal arrangements other than marriage," said Bush, who had
opposed legalizing civil unions when he was governor of Texas.
Republican officials said there was no rush to bring an amendment to
the floor in the House. Some conservatives want a broader approach than
Bush supports, and others oppose federalizing the issue, at least for now.
"The groups that are for a constitutional amendment are split over
what it should be," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
"We are trying to bring them all together and unify them."
California Republican Reps. David Dreier and Jerry Lewis said a
constitutional amendment might not be necessary.
"I will say that I'm not supportive of amending the Constitution
on this issue," said Dreier, a co-chairman of Bush's campaign in
California in 2000. "I believe that this should go through the
courts, and I think that we're at a point where it's not necessary."
Lewis said changing the Constitution should be a last resort on almost any
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from San Francisco, said
she would fight any amendment. "Never before has a constitutional
amendment been used to discriminate against a group of people, and we must
not start now," she said.
Amending the Constitution is not quick or simple. A two-thirds majority
of both the House and Senate must pass an amendment, and then it would be
sent to the states for ratification. It must be approved by three-fourths,
or 38 of the 50. Bush's father pressed for a constitutional amendment to
ban flag burning but it was not approved.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush believes that
amendment legislation submitted by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., meets
his principles in protecting the "sanctity of marriage" between
men and women. But Bush did not specifically embrace any particular
Bush's call for a gay-marriage amendment came as the president sought
to regain his footing after he was thrown on the defensive about issues
ranging from his Vietnam-era military record to missing weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq.
"After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and
millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are
presuming to change the most fundamental institution of
civilization," the president said.
Answering Bush, Kerry said, "All Americans should be concerned
when a president who is in political trouble tries to tamper with the
Constitution of the United States at the start of his re-election
"I believe the best way to protect gays and lesbians is through
civil unions," Kerry said. "I believe the issue of marriage
should be left to the states"
Edwards, campaigning in Georgia, where the state legislature is
debating its own ban on gay marriage, said, "I don't personally
support gay marriage myself. My position has always been that it's for the
states to decide."