Possible constitutional changes may end gay marriages

President Bush on Tuesday urged Congress to approve a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, adding new fuel to the emotional election-year debate over gay weddings.

Declaring that “the voice of the people must be heard,” Bush said changing the Constitution was the only sure way to defeat state court rulings and local government actions that had expanded the definition of marriage to include gay couples.

His announcement set the stage for a divisive and protracted battle in Congress and in state legislatures across the country. It inflamed passions on both sides of an issue that touches deeply held views about personal liberty, equality under law and traditional moral values.

Gay-rights advocates accused Bush of trying to exploit unease over homosexuality for political gain, at the risk of encouraging animosity toward gays. Social conservatives, a key element of the Republican base, hailed his decision as a victory for traditional families.

Bush, who initially resisted altering the Constitution as the issue gained prominence over the past year, said recent court rulings and the growing number of gay marriages left him no choice.

“After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence, and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization,” the president said. “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.”

Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, accused Bush of trying to divert attention from other, more pressing problems. Both said they personally opposed gay marriage, but thought the issue should be left to state legislatures.

Kerry’s home state took center stage in the national debate over gay marriage in November, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state’s constitution gives same-sex couples the right to marry. More recently, local officials in San Francisco and Sandoval County, N.M., started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples without a court order or permission from state authorities.

“All Americans should be concerned when a president who is in political trouble tries to tamper with the Constitution of the United States at the start of his re-election campaign,” Kerry said. “This president can’t talk about jobs. He can’t talk about health care. He can’t talk about a foreign policy which has driven away allies and weakened the United States, so he is looking for a wedge issue to divide the American people.”

Although Bush didn’t offer specific language for a constitutional amendment, White House aides said he favored a proposal by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., declaring that “marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.”

Top Republicans in Congress signaled that they are in no hurry to take up the proposed amendment, even though Bush urged swift action.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, suggested that lawmakers might try to deal with the issue with a new federal law, not a constitutional amendment.

“We are looking at other ways of doing it, knowing that it would be very difficult to pass a constitutional amendment,” DeLay said. Rep. David Dreier of California, another member of the House Republican leadership, came out against the proposed amendment, calling it unnecessary.

Changing the Constitution isn’t easy. The amendment would have to win approval in both the House of Representatives and the Senate by a two-thirds majority before being ratified by at least 38 of the 50 states. As worded, Musgrave’s amendment on gay marriage would set a seven-year deadline for ratification.

Although polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, they are far less enthusiastic about changing the Constitution to ban it. A nationwide poll released Tuesday by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey found that only 41 percent of Americans support a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.

Bush left open the possibility that states could approve civil unions and other forms of domestic partnership that carry some of the same legal rights as marriage, but other states wouldn’t have to recognize them. He said the constitutional amendment should “fully protect marriage, while leaving state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage.”

Social conservatives called Bush’s announcement a sorely needed boost for traditional values. Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist, gave conservative and evangelical leaders advance notice of Bush’s decision in a series of phone calls Tuesday morning.

“We have been assured that he will not only endorse it, he will use his political capital in Congress,” said Gary Bauer, the head of the conservative Campaign for Working Families. Bauer, who ran against Bush for the 2000 Republican nomination, said Bush’s decision would help energize conservatives for the November election.

But some conservatives view the proposal as an affront to states’ rights and personal freedom. Even Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter, has questioned the need for a constitutional amendment.

“People should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. It’s really no one else’s business,” Cheney said at a vice presidential candidates’ debate during the 2000 campaign. “I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that’s appropriate. I don’t think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area.”

Cheney has said since that he would support Bush’s decision.

Others said Bush should have gone even further by seeking a ban on civil unions and other legally sanctioned gay partnerships. Sandy Rios, the president of Concerned Women for America, called the proposed amendment a “defective remedy.”

Gay Republicans predicted that gays would abandon Bush in November. Polls after the 2000 election indicated that Bush got about 1 million of the 4 million votes cast by self-described homosexuals. He got about 15 million votes from social conservatives.