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Family Values Groups Gear Up for Battle Over Gay Marriage

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2003; Page A06

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- From Focus on the Family's 81-acre headquarters overlooking the jagged wonder of Pikes Peak, life looks rosy.

The evangelical ministry's college-like campus bustles with a happy energy. Tourists -- families, mostly, with armloads of children -- pile into the visitor center. More than 1,300 employees and dozens of volunteers and interns tend to various programs, from 150 people who answer more than 15,000 daily calls and letters asking for personal advice to scores who work on 10 Focus on the Family magazines, reaching as many as 2.3 million subscribers. And, every day, from an in-house studio with a small auditorium, Focus's founder, James Dobson, tapes a 30-minute radio show that reaches more than 200 million listeners in 98 countries.

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Yet for all its successes, Focus on the Family, which Dobson, a child psychologist, began 25 years ago to strengthen and promote the traditional family unit using conservative Christian interpretations of scripture, feels threatened as never before.

The prospect of any kind of legal or religious sanctioning of marriage between two people of the same sex, so much in the news these days, has rocked the organization's very reason for being. Focus on the Family, the country's largest international Christian "family values" organization, and other conservative religious groups believe the battle over gay marriage cuts to the heart of what defines their beliefs. God created Adam and Eve, Focus on the Family says, not just for procreation, but also because each sex brings qualities necessary to the healthy upbringing of children and a fully functioning society.

And because this is so crucial a belief, said Glenn Stanton, senior policy analyst for Focus on the Family, conservative Christian groups cannot afford to be worried about being called bigoted or intolerant for opposing gay marriage. Focus on the Family and its ideological brethren -- the Traditional Values Coalition, the Eagle Forum and others -- plan to spend as much energy and political capital as necessary to stop gay marriage in its tracks.

"This is very fundamental for us," said Stanton, author of the book "Why Marriage Matters."

"Within the history of Focus on the Family, we have never had an issue this big," he said. "We can't afford to move on from it. What are we going to move on to?"

The traditional values groups are beginning a massive campaign focusing on both politicians and the public. They are calling and visiting legislators in their districts soliciting support for a federal constitutional amendment codifying marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and promoting their cause through mass mailings and Christian radio and television programs. They are also considering urging their constituents not to vote for members of Congress if they fail to support the marriage amendment.

The Traditional Family Values Coalition is sending out 1.5 million mailings a month to conservative voters, asking them to contact their legislators and tell them the marriage amendment is of vital concern. "I call this the defining moment for American Christianity," said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, its founder. "What is at stake is no less than the doctrine of creation."

The Eagle Forum, which lobbied successfully for the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, has put the issue of gay marriage atop its agenda. It plans on lobbying legislators to support conservative judicial appointees as well as to oppose same-sex unions.

"Marriage is a fundamental institution of our society," said Phyllis Schlafly, the forum's founder, "and it should be defended against all the people who are attacking it. The gays have moved in to deliver the knockout punch."

Recent polls suggest that a growing number of people oppose gay marriage. A Washington Post poll last week found that a majority of the public disapproves of the Episcopal Church's decision to recognize the blessing of same-sex unions, and that a larger share of churchgoing Americans would object if their faith adopted a similar practice. It also found that while nearly half of all Americans who regularly attend worship services say they would leave their current church if their minister blessed gay couples, nearly six in 10 people polled who rarely or never go to church objected to the blessing of same-sex unions.

Whether a recent media campaign by groups such as Focus on the Family has anything to do with it, the poll also found that public acceptance of same-sex civil unions is falling. Fewer than four in 10 -- 37 percent -- of all Americans say they would support a law allowing homosexuals to form civil unions that would provide some of the rights and legal protections of marriage. That represents a 12 percent drop in support since May, when the Gallup organization posed the question in identical terms before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law. Conservatives such as Justice Antonin Scalia argued that decision paves the way for a "slippery slope" toward legalizing gay marriage.

Those who support gay marriage or civil unions are just as adamant that the protections and legal rights of married heterosexual couples should be extended to loving, committed couples of the same sex. After all, they say, this is a secular, and not a conservative Christian, society. But groups such as Focus on the Family, which advocates prayer in public schools, putting the Ten Commandments in public places and giving vouchers to private, faith-based schools, say it is their moral obligation to protect marriage between a man and a woman as the fulcrum of society.

"What has been missing from this issue is any thoughtful debate," Stanton said. He said that a considerable amount of social research on the family has made the case that fathers and mothers each contribute to the development of children in crucial, albeit different ways.

"The different-gendered unit is a self-contained unit," Stanton said. "It has everything a child needs." Some recent studies have pointed out that committed same-sex couples are just as likely to rear healthy, happy children as heterosexual couples are, but Stanton said those studies tend to be done by advocates of same-sex couples. At the very least, he said, the issue and the studies should be examined.

"Where have you seen on PBS or anywhere where the two sides were engaged in a seriously rational debate over this?" Stanton continued. "We're not even allowed to discuss it without being called bigoted and hateful."

If the federal marriage amendment sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) were to pass, it would not only prohibit same-sex marriage, but also would also nullify state laws allowing gay civil unions, since those laws allow gay couples the same benefits the state provides to married heterosexuals.

With two-thirds of Congress needed for a constitutional change and three-quarters of the states needed to ratify the amendment, the battle is expected to be long and drawn out, perhaps over at least two election cycles.

Of course, a federal statute already bans same-sex marriage -- the Defense of Marriage Act, which President Bill Clinton signed in 1996. The traditional family values groups played a large role in enacting that legislation , though they now say it is unlikely to survive a Supreme Court challenge given the court's recent ruling in the Texas sodomy case.

That, Stanton said, is why passing the marriage amendment is the top priority. "For us," he said, "this is a fundamental question of how do male and female complement one another. It's the fundamental nature of marriage."

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