Bush Backs Amendment Banning Gay Marriage

By Mike Allen and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 25, 2004

President Bush called yesterday for a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to the union of men and women, asserting that gay marriage would weaken society.

Bush's support for a ban on gay marriage put the weight of the White House behind Christian conservatives working to thwart a Massachusetts court ruling that could permit same-sex wedding vows as soon as May 17, and the subsequent decision by San Francisco to issue marriage licenses to more than 3,200 gay couples so far.

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

To become part of the Constitution, an amendment must win a two-thirds vote in each chamber of Congress and be ratified by 38 states, a process likely to take years. Opponents pointed out that this would be the only time a constitutional amendment had restricted rather than expanded liberties besides the since-repealed prohibition on the sale of intoxicating liquor in 1919.

Bush said he wants to preserve marriage as a union of one man and one woman but allow state legislatures to determine whether same-sex couples should receive various benefits, a formula that apparently would allow the kind of civil unions and domestic partnership arrangements that exist in Vermont and California.

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 married couples.

"Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society," Bush said. "Government, by recognizing and protecting marriage, serves the interests of all."

Polls show the nation is split on the question. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday found that 46 percent of respondents favored an amendment banning gay marriage and 45 percent opposed it.

But with the issue of gay marriage heavily in the news, support for such an amendment rose 8 percentage points from a similar poll taken last month.

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill had discouraged the White House from embracing the issue and expressed severe reservations about the feasibility of passing an amendment.

Bush's aides did not say how much muscle he would put into the fight. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a leading voice of social conservatives, said his group expects Bush to lobby as hard for the amendment as he did for tax cuts and a prescription drug benefit for Medicare. "I don't think that they would have just thrown this out there as a political gambit in an election year," Perkins 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 told reporters that 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."

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