Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Pro-family groups said yesterday that President Bush “drove a wedge” into their efforts to protect marriage by seeming to accept homosexual civil unions, even as he said he could support an amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and woman.

“We need clear leadership in a time of judicial tyranny, not politicians who don’t have the spine to stand up for something as basic as marriage,” said Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America’s Culture and Family Institute.

“Let’s be clear: Creating counterfeits is no way to protect marriage, no matter what you call them,” he said.

Mr. Bush, in an interview with ABC News that aired Tuesday night, said, “If necessary, I will support a constitutional amendment which would honor marriage between a man and a woman, codify that.”

But he also said he will leave to states “whatever legal arrangements people want to make.” Asked specifically about civil unions, he said it is a state issue “unless judicial rulings undermine the sanctity of marriage.”

That left many conservatives and pro-family groups wondering just how far the president is willing to go.

“What the president said is confusing, and some will find it hard to distinguish from Howard Dean, who supported domestic partnerships in Vermont at the state level,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a conservative interest group.

“I hope the president will make a direct statement that he opposes same-sex marriage and fake marriage, and leave to the states only contractual issues like inheritance,” Mr. Bauer said.

Domestic partnerships or civil unions afford some or all legal rights of marriage without being actually designated a marriage.

Mr. Bush didn’t endorse any specific proposal, but his remarks seemed to mirror an amendment pending in the House and Senate.

It reads, in part: “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.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican and one of the co-sponsors in the Senate, called the president’s statement “a major step forward” because, before now, the president had only said he would explore what was necessary.

He said in crafting a constitutional amendment, legislators want something simple and clear, and that would be difficult to do while also addressing issues of benefits to same-sex couples.

Mr. Brownback also said the amendment is narrowly drawn to marriage because it is meant to be a statement to judges about stepping on ground that should be reserved for legislatures.

“This amendment is as much about the courts as it is about the culture,” Mr. Brownback said. “We’re trying to define [the amendment] clearly on the issue of marriage and the deciding group as legislating bodies, and not the courts.”

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said that administration officials contacted conservative groups yesterday to reaffirm that the president stands ready to support an amendment, if necessary.

Conservatives and Republicans as a whole have been split over the issue. Some would like to prohibit all civil unions, while others argue against raising the issue to the level of the Constitution, even though it may be the only response to court rulings.

Still others said the president is striking the right balance.

“We’re encouraged the administration appears to be embracing that centrist stance,” said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, one of the key backers of the amendment now pending. “The president’s statements today reflect where most Americans are on this issue.”

He said Mr. Bush has to preface his support by saying “if necessary” because he doesn’t want to undercut the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which already says that states don’t have to recognize homosexual “marriages” conducted in other states.

Still, those on both sides of the debate expect the courts to rule the law unconstitutional, leaving little recourse other than a constitutional amendment.

The Democratic Party is opposed to an amendment, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Mr. Bush’s support “has now made it clear that he and his party are indeed uninterested in demonstrating compassion towards gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender American families.”

Most polls show more than 50 percent of Americans oppose both civil unions and homosexual “marriages,” while support is at or just below 40 percent.

But amendment opponents point to other polls showing that while about one-third of Americans support homosexual “marriage” and one-third oppose it, another third say the issue just isn’t important to them.

“People certainly in this country are split on equal marriage rights, but whatever they may believe about that, they overwhelmingly believe the Constitution should not be amended to do something so overwhelmingly unfair,” said Judith E. Schaeffer, deputy legal director at People for the American Way, a liberal interest group.

Still, conservatives said the danger for Mr. Bush is that he will annoy his base without gaining anything from other voters.

“There isn’t much of a political middle on this issue,” said American Conservative Union Executive Director Richard Lessner.

“Politically, this is not an issue the president can finesse. You’re either for marriage or you’re not,” he said. “For him, the risk is going to be alienating a significant portion of his base vote if he tries to finesse this issue.”

Mr. Knight said leaving open the possibility of civil unions “is not only immoral, it is bad politics. It will serve only to unite his enemies and demoralize his base.”

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