Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday that Congress “must act and act soon” to prevent a few judges and local officials from redefining marriage for everyone, as lawmakers held the first day of hearings on a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a male-female union.
“We didn’t seek this fight, and we don’t relish it,” Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “But the courts have brought it to us, and the people will respond. We will not let activist judges redefine marriage for our entire society.
“The wildfire will begin, and in many ways it already has begun,” he said, referring to, among other events, a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling last year ordering the legislature to create homosexual “marriage” there.
“Same-sex marriage is likely to spread through all 50 states in the coming years,” he said.
On Capitol Hill yesterday, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and property rights that the recent rulings threaten to force states such as his to comply.
More than 70 percent of Nebraskans voted in 2000 to amend their state constitution to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman, but that was challenged in federal court last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lambda Legal Foundation.
Mr. Bruning said all indications from the court signal that Nebraska’s amendment will be struck down.
“Recent court rulings have created a legal domino effect that may impose a national policy on gay marriage,” he said, adding that his and other states’ constitutional amendments and statutes defending traditional marriage are “not secure.”
“I am here because of the reality that four judges in Massachusetts could eventually invalidate Nebraska’s ban on same-sex marriages,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a Texas law prohibiting sodomy involving two persons of the same sex violated the due-process clause, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court subsequently ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to “marry.”
That emboldened local authorities in California and New York to begin “marrying” same-sex couples. New York’s attorney general weighed in yesterday, saying New York law prohibits same-sex “marriage.”
Meanwhile, same-sex couples lined up for “marriage” licenses in Portland, Ore., yesterday, after the county started issuing them. Oregon’s governor also said the state’s law doesn’t allow it.
Thousands of same-sex couples have been “married” in San Francisco, and a county in New Mexico also has sanctioned same-sex “marriage.”
Democrats at the hearing yesterday said Republicans are using the issue for political advantage.
“This is a divisive political exercise in an election year, plain and simple,” said Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.
He said Republicans’ contention that traditional marriage is under major attack is false. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
The hearing was the opening shot in what promises to be a long battle this year over homosexual “marriage.”
It was the first such hearing since President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Republicans and other supporters of the federal marriage amendment hoped to use the hearing to lay the groundwork and demonstrate the need for such action.
A Senate Republican aide said the Judiciary Committee hopes to vote on a federal marriage amendment by the end of April, with full Senate action soon afterward.
Opponents said states should be allowed to continue handling this issue on their own, and denied that homosexual “marriage” in one state will force every other state to recognize such unions.
Lea Brilmayer, professor of international law at Yale University, said states have had different marriage laws for years on issues ranging from polygamy to underage marriage, and it had “never caused any sort of a constitutional crisis.”
Republicans say the amendment is needed because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which codified the traditional view of marriage, is in danger of being struck down by the high court.
But Mr. Feingold said the possibility of a future Supreme Court ruling is hardly a reason to amend the Constitution now.
“Do we really want to amend the Constitution just in case the Supreme Court reaches a particular result?” he asked. “Do we want to launch what amounts to a pre-emptive strike on our Constitution? That should give every American pause.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would not take a position on same-sex “marriage,” but strongly opposed the constitutional amendment.
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, told panel members yesterday that the proposed amendment “would use the Constitution to discriminate and restrict, rather than expand and protect the rights for any and all persons.”
But the Rev. Richard Richardson, pastor of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and chairman of political affairs for the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston Inc., said the traditional institution of marriage between a man and woman “is not discrimination. And I find it offensive to call it that.”
He said traditional marriage “plays a critical role in ensuring the progress and prosperity of the black family and the black community at large.”