Tuesday, November 18, 2003

President Bush yesterday said he will work with Congress to defend “the sanctity of marriage” against yesterday’s decision by a Massachusetts court that the state’s constitution guarantees same-sex couples a right to marry.

“Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. Today’s decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court violates this important principle,” Mr. Bush said in a brief statement released by the White House. “I will work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.”

The Massachusetts high court ruled that banning homosexual couples from marriage violates the state constitution. It gave the Legislature 180 days to craft a law establishing gay “marriages.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill yesterday were focused on making sure the federal government and other states don’t have to recognize same-sex “marriages” granted in Massachusetts.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said House Republicans were already moving on that point.

“We are pushing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. We’re working on one, we’re trying to bring everybody together,” he said. “When you have a runaway judiciary, which we obviously have, that has no consideration for the Constitution of the United States, then we have available to us through that Constitution [a way] to fix the judiciary.”

Mr. DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, believe Congress has already spoken with the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which says states do not have to recognize same-sex “marriages” granted in other states.

Mr. Frist said Republican leaders will watch to see if that law stands up to court scrutiny, but he said all options, including a constitutional amendment, will be considered.

“It is our obligation. It is the law of the land passed by this body, and if the courts begin to tear that down, we have a responsibility to address it. And all options are indeed on the table,” he said.

Polls show most Americans oppose same-sex “marriage,” and a Pew Center survey shows opposition is increasing. The poll found opposition at 59 percent, up 6 percent from July, which is when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Texas law prohibiting same-sex sodomy.

Some Democrats in Congress praised the decision, including the House’s two openly gay Democrats, Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

“As of six months from now, same-sex marriage will be open to people in Massachusetts who want to take advantage of it. I welcome this,” Mr. Frank said. “The right to marry, the right to formalize the love you feel for another individual, to make a financial and legal commitment along with your emotional commitment, is a pretty basic right of people in this country. And on one level, it is very important that this court has said that ought to be extended to us.”

Mr. Frank predicted Massachusetts residents will be asked to vote within a few years on an amendment to their constitution overturning the decision, but he said he doesn’t think it will pass.

“My prediction is that when we in Massachusetts vote on this, as we almost certainly will in 2006, the reality will have overtaken the fears,” he said.

Still, the issue split the Democratic Party, with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, saying he disagreed with the court’s decision. Mr. Daschle, though, said he thinks the 1996 Defense of Marriage law will be upheld, meaning other states wouldn’t have to recognize same-sex “marriages” granted in Massachusetts.

Some Republicans said even without further court rulings, a constitutional amendment will gather steam.

“It makes it more likely you’re going to see a move to push forward with the amendment,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Constitution subcommittee.

The pending amendment, sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, Colorado Republican, would add to the Constitution: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.”

To pass, a constitutional amendment would have to win two-thirds support in both chambers of Congress and be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.

But Mr. Franks doubted Congress would muster the votes.

“We have talked to a lot of our Democratic colleagues. They are overwhelmingly against the notion that the federal government should override a state decision here,” he said. “I believe every Democratic presidential candidate has taken that position.”

The Massachusetts court’s 4-3 decision does not allow marriage licenses to be issued to the seven couples who sued the state, but pro-family activists say it is a wake-up call that the issue is moving to the national level.

“We must amend the Constitution if we are to stop a tyrannical judiciary from redefining marriage to the point of extinction,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, called the decision “good for gay couples and it is good for America.”

“A civil-marriage license unlocks the door to hundreds of rights, responsibilities and protections under state law,” Miss Birch said.

• Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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