Gay Marriage Looms as Issue
A House Republican aide said congressional leaders would probably push for a constitutional amendment next year, "if there is a confluence of court rulings and a groundswell of public opinion."
"Some conservatives who usually are reluctant to support constitutional amendments wouldn't stand in the way of the will of the House if courts are distorting the essence and purpose of marriage," the strategist said. "In an election year, it would be good to get folks on the record. Democrats who usually would be tempted to vote against us might join us out of fear of looking extreme."
A GOP strategist said gay marriage is viewed in the party as a valuable "opportunistic issue" -- that is, one the party can play up in key races and ignore in others.
Many Democrats plan to avoid the issue when possible. An ABC News poll in September found that 55 percent of adults surveyed think same-sex marriages should be illegal, and 37 percent think they should be legal. The poll also found that 51 percent of adults opposed legally recognized civil unions, which would give gay couples the same legal rights as married people in areas such as health insurance, inheritance, pensions and hospital visitations.
Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, has been conducting focus groups on the subject for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay political organization, and said he finds that middle-of-the-road voters "would prefer to talk about almost any other subject." He said the issue could boomerang on Bush's efforts to come across as moderate.
"Even when they agree on the substance, voters often become uncomfortable with politicians who raise the subject," Garin said. "While Americans certainly don't embrace the idea of gay marriage, they're uncomfortable with identifying themselves with policies that smack of discrimination and unfairness."
Elizabeth Birch, the Human Rights Campaign's executive director, said her group's strategy is to educate people about the differences between the religious ceremony and the legal protections of a marriage certificate.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have tried to navigate that terrain by opposing gay marriage but endorsing civil unions.
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark all support the concept of civil unions, according to their campaigns.
Howard Dean, who as Vermont governor signed the nation's first civil unions bill, supports civil unions or whatever other concepts states choose to ensure equal rights for gay and lesbian couples, his campaign said.
Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.) oppose gay marriage and think the issue of civil unions should be left to the states, according to their campaigns. The only supporters of gay marriage are Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), Al Sharpton and former senator Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.).
Gephardt's daughter, Chrissy, who is gay, has been a highly visible supporter of her father's campaign and goes further than he does, supporting gay marriage. Gephardt said at a Human Rights Campaign candidates' forum in July that civil unions are attainable, and suggested that approval of gay marriage is not. "We haven't passed a lot of things that we need to pass," he said. "We've got a ways to go here."
Bush has been restrained in his comments on the issue. After the Supreme Court's sodomy ruling in June, Bush said about an amendment: "I don't know if it's necessary yet. Let's let the lawyers look at the full ramifications of the recent Supreme Court hearing. What I do support is the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman."
Asked again at a news conference at the end of July, Bush did not condemn homosexuality, saying he is "mindful that we're all sinners."
"On the other hand, that does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on an issue such as marriage," he said. "I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman. And I think we ought to codify that one way or the other. And we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that."
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, connected the dots of Bush's remarks at a breakfast for reporters in September. Pointing to "a lot of energy out there, a lot of concern about gay marriage," Gillespie said he would not be surprised if the issue is addressed in the party's platform next summer.
Gillespie noted that he is a committed Catholic. "I accept people for who they are -- and love them," he said. "That doesn't mean I have to agree or turn my back on the tenets of my faith when it comes to homosexuality."
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