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Wednesday, February 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:16 A.M.

Bush says amendment needed 'to protect marriage in America'

By Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — President Bush yesterday called for a constitutional amendment to prevent people of the same sex from marrying, saying homosexual marriages threaten "the most fundamental institution of civilization."

Bush said recent moves for same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, California and New Mexico are "an aggressive attempt to redefine marriage" for the nation and must be halted before they progress further.

"If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America," Bush said at a hastily called appearance in the White House's Roosevelt Room.

"Decisive and democratic action is needed, because attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country," the president said.

Bush, who said he wanted to "conduct this difficult debate in a manner worthy of our country, without bitterness or anger," was not specific about what he wanted to see in an amendment.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said a version introduced by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., which is called the Federal Marriage Amendment and is backed by key evangelical conservative groups, "meets his principles." Signaling the desire for changes, McClellan said the administration will "work closely with Congress on the specifics."

Proposed amendment

Musgrave's proposed amendment says: "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."
 
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Musgrave and the Alliance for Marriage, a group of religious leaders who have been pushing that language since 2001, say the amendment would ban gay marriage but let each state decide whether to allow civil unions. But a number of constitutional scholars, and even a few of the amendment's authors, say it would effectively block some or all civil unions.

Such arrangements confer some rights of marriage but are not recognized by the federal government or other states. That means gay partners would not receive Social Security survivors' benefits, inherit property without paying federal taxes or be guaranteed the same pension benefits or hospital-visitation rights as a married couple.

As a candidate in 2000, Bush declined to back a marriage amendment, saying states should be allowed to decide whether to permit same-sex marriages. But he said he has grown convinced that marriage is an institution threatened by a Massachusetts court ruling legalizing gay marriage and by the issuing of thousands of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in San Francisco and New Mexico.

"Their actions have created confusion on an issue that requires clarity," Bush said.

Reactions to Bush's move

Conservative groups, which have been pressuring Bush to show more assertive leadership on the issue, welcomed his endorsement. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, called Bush's statement "the linchpin in efforts to protect marriage in our country."

"Just as the president used the weight of his office to secure drug benefits for seniors and tax cuts for families, we fully expect him to use his influence to preserve the institution of marriage for the future of our country," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

But some conservatives contended Bush did not go far enough. Concerned Women for America issued a statement saying the group "cannot support the defective remedy he has chosen," because it could allow civil unions.

Democrats and civil libertarians immediately assailed Bush's proposal.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, issued a statement accusing Bush of "toying with the Constitution for political purposes."

Later, talking with reporters in Ohio, Kerry was more guarded, taking care not to alienate voters who oppose legalizing gay marriage. "I believe, as a matter of belief, that marriage is between a man and a woman," Kerry said.

But Kerry said he opposes a constitutional amendment that would override state authority. "The states for 200 years have had the right to make this decision, and there is nothing to suggest that they're not up to the ability to make the decision," he said.

Bush had been talking about the issue for six months without formally endorsing an amendment, leaving some conservatives with the impression he made yesterday's announcement reluctantly.

He announced his support for an amendment the day after launching his general-election campaign by attacking his likely opponent, Kerry, as a waffler. Kerry was one of 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and was signed by President Clinton in 1996.

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who is also seeking the nomination, said, "I don't personally support gay marriage myself. My position has always been that it's for the states to decide."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., released a statement saying she opposed an amendment.

"I am opposed to discrimination of any sort and will not support a constitutional amendment that discriminates against any group of Americans," she said.

"The reason the president is pushing this is politics. The number one priority of the president should not be to ban gay marriage."

Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian group, said the proposed amendment runs counter to the spirit of other constitutional amendments that expanded, rather than restricted, individual rights.

Seeking permanency

In his announcement, Bush blamed "activist judges," among others, for overriding the will of the people. He acknowledged that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act already provides many of the protections he seeks — such as allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages approved by other states — but he also said more permanent protection is needed.

"There is no assurance that the Defense of Marriage Act will not itself be struck down by activist courts," Bush said. "In that event, every state would be forced to recognize any relationship that judges in Boston or officials in San Francisco choose to call a marriage."

A constitutional amendment requires approval of two-thirds of both the House and Senate, and then must be ratified by the legislatures of 38 states.

The Gallup Organization found in a recent poll that about 60 percent of Americans oppose legalizing same-sex marriage, but less than half want to see the Constitution amended to ban such marriages. The poll also showed that, overall, while the issue is important to Republicans, it is of much less concern to Democrats and independents.

Currently, no states recognize same-sex marriage, although the Massachusetts court ruling would require that state to begin issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples May 17.

Vermont has legalized "civil unions" that confer state-level benefits and responsibilities to same-sex couples. Thirty-eight states, including Washington, have laws banning same-sex marriage.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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