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Sunday, July 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Senate takes up fight over gay unions

By Jill Zuckman and Anastasia Ustinova
Chicago Tribune

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., proponent of bill.
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WASHINGTON — The culture wars will return to Capitol Hill when the Senate votes this week on whether to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage, resurrecting a debate that exploded earlier this year but has been more muted since.

The emotional topic of same-sex marriage versus traditional marriage has sparked a grass-roots lobbying campaign pitting gay-rights activists against social conservatives. It has led some gay Democrats to threaten to "out" gay Republican staffers. And it has spilled into the presidential and congressional elections, snaring politicians who would rather avoid the question.

The issue poses problems for both presidential candidates, highlighting Sen. John Kerry's somewhat contorted position on gay marriage and threatening to cast President Bush as intolerant and insensitive to gays.

The debate follows past clashes on abortion and school prayer and comes just as Kerry and Bush are emphasizing that their values are in tune with the nation's citizens.

Republican proponents of the amendment insist they are trying to protect a sacred institution, and they say they have no political motivation in raising the subject two weeks before the Democratic National Convention.

"Messing with the basic family unit in society is not something to trifle with," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a key sponsor of the legislation, arguing that activist courts have forced legislators to act now.

But opponents say the drive to amend the Constitution is a political ploy to insert a wedge between Democratic candidates and voters, causing centrists to flee to GOP candidates.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sees political motive.
"They believe unless they deeply polarize the country further they will not win this election," said Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign.

There is one thing that both sides agree on: Santorum and his allies do not have the votes. A constitutional amendment requires, among other things, approval of 67 of the 100 senators. The vote will fall far short.

But the vote is seen as a key test of strength that will send a signal to the rest of the country, including states considering amending their constitutions, about the appeal of a gay-marriage ban.

Democrats charge that proponents of the ban are wasting Congress' time, not only because the amendment will not pass but also because an existing law — the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

They say there are more important things for Congress to do in a time of terrorist threats and languishing federal spending bills.

"This is not about changing the Constitution. This is about changing the debate in the presidential race," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "The Bush administration can't answer why its economic policy has failed so many working families and why its policy in Iraq has failed, so they want to change the subject."

But Santorum said his coalition of social conservatives and religious groups will win eventually.

"I think this is a long battle, and this is the first step," Santorum said.

To amend the Constitution, backers must go beyond Capitol Hill. If both chambers approve an amendment by a two-thirds margin, it then goes to the states, where 38 of the 50 legislatures would have to ratify it. If that were to happen, the ban on gay marriage would be protected from all legal challenges.

The House has not voted on the amendment, and it is not clear whether it will this year.

A flurry of recent legal activity has led social conservatives to worry that the federal Defense of Marriage Act would not stand up to judicial scrutiny. In Massachusetts, for example, the Supreme Judicial Court voted to give same-sex couples the right to marry under the state's constitution. In addition to defining marriage for federal purposes, the marriage act gives states the right to recognize or deny such unions.

This latest push to establish marriage as solely between a man and a woman has set off a frenzy of grass-roots lobbying, including the delivery Friday to the Senate of more than 1 million signatures favoring a gay-marriage ban. Another 1.1 million signatures were expected to arrive tomorrow.

The Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay-rights organization, has launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to defeat the amendment. The group also is channeling phone calls, e-mails and letters to senators urging them to oppose the proposal.

Some opponents of the amendment are fighting back by targeting congressional aides they say are "pro-gay by night and anti-gay by day."

Gay activists Michael Rogers and John Aravosis say they have compiled a list of gay congressmen and senior congressional aides who keep their sexual orientation a secret and who support the marriage amendment.

"There is a conspiracy of silence on the Hill," Rogers said. "We are exposing their hypocrisy."

Rogers last week alerted Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a leading proponent of the amendment, that one of his aides was openly gay outside the office. Inhofe said the aide isn't on his personal staff and that he does not hire openly gay staffers "due to the possibility of a conflict of agenda."

On the other side, advocates of outlawing gay marriage have been targeting Capitol Hill as well as voters in battleground states to gather signatures for state constitutional amendments.

Today — dubbed "Protect Marriage Sunday" — some pastors are expected to urge their congregants to call, e-mail and fax their senators, urging them to amend the Constitution.

Also today, the Family Research Council and the Southern Baptist Convention will broadcast a nationwide satellite simulcast called "The Battle for Marriage," encouraging audiences to make their voices heard in Washington.

Other conservative activists hope that at a minimum, the debate over marriage will spotlight Kerry's complicated position on the matter. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. He says he opposes gay marriage, while favoring civil unions for gay couples. Kerry also opposes amending the Constitution.

A Bush campaign spokesman refused to comment at all.

"The president has made clear this is not a political matter," spokesman Steve Schmidt said.

Hours later, however, the president used his weekly radio address to promote a constitutional amendment before "the meaning of marriage is lost and the institution is weakened."

Bush's weekly radio address was reported by The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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