Monday, March 22, 2004

Lawmakers pushing a constitutional amendment to define marriage said yesterday they have modified the wording to clarify that while the amendment would prevent homosexual “marriage,” state legislatures could still voluntarily approve civil unions.

The changes, which supporters called “technical,” attempt to broaden support for the proposal, and answer criticism that the original language was vague and could have stopped state legislatures from giving same-sex couples benefits through civil unions or domestic partnerships.

“The new language makes the intent of the legislation even clearer: to protect marriage in this country as the union between a man and a woman, and to reinforce the authority of state legislatures to determine benefits issues related to civil unions or domestic partnerships,” said the proposal’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican.

Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, Colorado Republican, made identical changes to her counterpart proposal in the House.

Critics dismissed the changes as a futile attempt to get enough votes to pass the measure.

“Today, the far right is trying to figure out the most politically palatable way to write discrimination into the Constitution,” Chris Barron, political director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said of the changes. “There is no way to do so.”

President Bush recently called for a constitutional amendment to protect marriage as involving a man and a woman.

Supporters say the amendment is desperately needed in the wake of Massachusetts’ highest court ordering the state legislature to allow homosexuals to “marry” there, and thousands of couples being “married” by local officials who flouted state law in California and elsewhere.

The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act aims to ensure that a state is not forced to recognize another state’s definition of marriage, but supporters of a constitutional amendment say that law will not survive the court challenges that are sure to come.

The federal marriage amendment will be the subject of a hearing today in the Senate Judiciary Constitution subcommittee, led by Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who strongly supports a marriage amendment but hasn’t endorsed specific language yet.

The revised Musgrave-Allard proposal, like the original, would define marriage as the union between a man and a woman, meaning states and courts couldn’t say otherwise.

The second half of the original proposal, sponsors said, was intended to bar courts from forcing states to create same-sex civil unions. Specifically, it prevented courts from using the Constitution, any state constitution, state or federal law, to do so. The key change is that sponsors have now removed the reference to state or federal law, because some critics said that could have hindered state legislatures from voluntarily approving civil unions.

Mr. Allard said the changes will “remove any ambiguity,” and “make it clear that states do have a role” in approving same-sex civil unions if they so choose. Mr. Cornyn said the revisions address concerns Democrats have raised.

But the process of settling on final language for a constitutional amendment is far from over, Mr. Cornyn said, noting some senators prefer one simple sentence defining marriage between a man and a woman, while others favor a “federalism” amendment, simply ensuring that the definition of marriage would be left up to each state.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, is exploring the latter.

“I suspect there will be other versions of an amendment proposed before we are done,” Mr. Cornyn said. “I think this is the first step.”

The conservative Concerned Women for America wants the amendment to bar states and courts from creating either same-sex “marriage” or civil unions.

“We’re still disappointed in that it expressly allows legislatures to create civil unions,” said CWA’s chief counsel Jan LaRue. She said it is pointless to outlaw homosexual “marriage” while allowing similar benefits under a different title. “What have you protected other than a name?”

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