- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

The nation’s governors are treading gingerly on same-sex “marriage,” but several in both parties say it will be impossible to duck the issue in this election year.

Democrats say Republicans are using the issue to divide Americans.

“We don’t need to make this into a wedge issue, but it’s becoming a wedge issue,” Gov. Bill Richardson, New Mexico Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Appearing on the same program, Mississippi’s Republican governor denied the charge.

“No, look, the Republicans — nobody’s making a wedge issue out of this,” said Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Reagan administration official and former head of the Republican National Committee.

Mr. Richardson, Mr. Barbour and other governors are in Washington for the annual National Governors Association meeting, which concludes tomorrow. Yesterday, a Republican pollster told the governors that same-sex “marriages” will remain a top issue through November.

“This is going to be part of the 2004 campaign, and it’s going to be hard for anyone running for any substantial office not to have to deal with this issue,” pollster Bill McInturf said. He said a December study he conducted with Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found voters almost 2-to-1 against homosexual “marriage” and noted that President Bush had a 15 percentage-point advantage on the issue.

In criticizing efforts to extend the definition of marriage to include homosexual couples, Republican governors emphasized the rule of law, rather than the morality of the issue.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom set a dangerous precedent when he ordered the city on Feb. 12 to begin issuing licenses for same-sex unions in defiance of the state’s ban on homosexual “marriages.”

“We have to stay within the law,” the Republican actor-turned-governor said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday. “There’s a state law that says specific things, and if you want to challenge those laws, then you can go to the court.”

The San Francisco precedent might spark a national trend, said several governors who cited a New Mexico case in which a county clerk began issuing “marriage” licenses to same-sex couples last week before the state attorney general put a stop to it.

Mr. Richardson said he supported the action by his state’s attorney general, but also said he opposes amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex “marriage.”

State and local battles over the issue could have national political impact for both parties. Mr. Barbour told Fox News yesterday he would be interested to hear what Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, would have to say about a continuing legal conflict that began in his state.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last year ordered the state legislature to sanction same-sex “marriages,” saying that denial of legal recognition to such unions violates the Massachusetts constitution.

During a press conference on Saturday, Republican governors appeared reluctant to address the issue. The party’s religious conservatives have accused Mr. Bush and Mr. Schwarzenegger of being too slow to react to the San Francisco situation and have pushed for a national ban on same-sex “marriage,” a stance that puts them at odds with traditional defenders of states’ rights.

“This is a tough issue in all our states and as governors, we certainly would like to see state law have primacy, but the real issue here is the rule of law,” said Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican.

While saying he supported “domestic-partnership rights” for homosexual couples, Mr. Schwarzenegger yesterday warned that San Francisco’s action threatened legal anarchy in California.

“In San Francisco, [now] it is license for marriage of same sex.Maybe the next thing is another city that hands out licenses for assault weapons and someone else hands out licenses for selling drugs — I mean, you can’t do that,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said.

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