Thursday, March 4, 2004

House Judiciary leaders are taking a more cautious approach than their Senate colleagues to the possibility of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution will hold a series of hearings later this month that will examine the legal challenges to traditional marriage and what can be done to counter them. The Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and property rights held a meeting this week on the issue.

“I don’t have an opinion on anything at this point,” said House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, when asked how he feels about such a constitutional amendment.

Others gave it conditional support.

“If it’s necessary — in order to not jeopardize traditional marriage — that a constitutional amendment should be passed, I would support that,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, the Ohio Republican who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee. “Some think an amendment is the only way; I haven’t reached that conclusion yet.”

But both congressmen denounced the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex “marriage” in the state, as well as subsequent moves by authorities in California, New York and elsewhere to circumvent their state laws by “marrying” same-sex couples.

“We reject the Massachusetts court’s rash and outrageous assault on democracy and the laws passed by the people’s representatives,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said. “In response, and by example, we … will carefully and deliberately assess the appropriate manner in which the hallowed concept of marriage should be protected.”

“A few local judges and officials have stolen from citizens their democratic right to self-governance,” Mr. Chabot said.

Senate Republican leaders, on the other hand, are aggressively supporting the idea of a constitutional amendment, which President Bush endorsed recently.

The first House hearing, set for March 30 in Mr. Chabot’s subcommittee, will examine the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — a law that recognizes marriage as between one man and one woman under federal law, and ensures that a state does not have to recognize a “marriage” certificate issued to a same-sex couple in another state.

But many supporters of a federal marriage amendment worry that the law isn’t strong enough to withstand a constitutional challenge as same-sex couples “marry” in Massachusetts, move to other states and demand recognition of their “marriages.”

Mr. Sensenbrenner said the hearings from April to June will examine how Congress can ensure that each state can have its own marriage policy without being forced to accept same-sex “marriage.” He also wants to examine the larger issue of judges creating law instead of interpreting it.

House Judiciary Democrats yesterday condemned the constitutional amendment as a way to deny rights to one group of people, and called Republicans’ move to examine the issue a political ploy.

“The truth is that the president’s egregious attempt to enshrine discrimination in our Constitution is no more than a search for a wedge issue in the 2004 campaign,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Constitution subcommittee, who thinks that states should be allowed to continue handling this issue on their own.

Mr. Sensenbrenner noted that there is disagreement over the wording of a constitutional amendment, as some conservative groups don’t think that the amendment goes far enough. The language in the amendment, introduced by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, Colorado Republican, would ban homosexual “marriage” but not prevent state legislatures from allowing civil unions.

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