Indecent Proposal

Religious Right, White House Give Election-Year Push To Federal Marriage Amendment, But Senate Says No

The Rev. Robert Hardies of All Souls Uni­tarian Church in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., sensed that something more sinister than a desire to protect family values was fueling the drive for a federal marriage amendment.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” Har­dies told a news media briefing at the National Press Club on June 5. “There isn’t anyone in Washington who is naïve enough to believe that the introduction of this legislation now in two consecutive election cycles is anything but a politically motivated effort to win votes by demonizing a class of citizens.”

Hardies, a member of an ad hoc gathering of anti-amendment religious leaders called Clergy For Fairness, also criticized President George W. Bush for hosting a special White House event that day to promote the constitutional change, which would define marriage in America as solely between a man and a woman.

Hardies said the president should be ashamed of using the marriage issue to “boost his poll numbers.”

The effort by top Republican political strategists and their Religious Right allies to use the marriage amendment to herd voters to the polls may or may not work in November, but S.J. Res. 1 went nowhere fast in the Senate.

On June 7, the Senate voted 49-48 to shut off debate on the so-called “Marriage Protection Amendment” and bring it to the floor for an up-or-down vote. The tally was far short of the 60 votes required to invoke cloture. And it was even farther short of the 67 votes needed to approve a constitutional change.

In 2004, another election season, the federal marriage amendment suffered a very similar defeat in the Senate, with 48 senators voting to close debate. Thus, the Senate – with more Republicans than 2004 – was only able to muster one more vote in favor of the amendment.

Two Republican senators who supported the amendment in 2004, Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), this time voted against it. (Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., did not show for the vote.)

Despite the proposal’s ignominious failure, the nation’s leading Religious Right operatives were shameless in their efforts to elevate gay marriage on the nation’s political radar.

Indeed, during an election season, nothing seems to set off America’s Religious Right leaders quite like the issue of gay marriage. While it is true that James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have been obsessing over gay rights for what seems like decades, their preoccupation with gays turns rabid in the months leading up to elections.

This campaign season has been no exception. The cries from the Religious Right for passage of a marriage amendment have intensified as the mid-term elections draw nearer.

Although Republican leaders, including President Bush, seemed somewhat reluctant to join the crusade, at the last minute they used the issue to pump up the party’s Religious Right base. Because of the ongoing bloody war in Iraq, high energy costs and stagnant wages, approval ratings for Bush and congressional leaders were sagging terribly in late spring.

So, in May, Washington’s leaders turned, after several weeks of demands from Religious Right heavyweights, to a debate on the amendment. It was one of several hot-button issues that rose to center stage. Close on the heels of the marriage debate, Congress was scheduled to consider yet again an amendment barring flag desecration, as well as one or more bills dealing with court-stripping.

In early spring, Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, made trips to Washington to browbeat Republican leaders in Congress and the White House into getting serious about the marriage amendment and other social issues. It was high time, Dobson claimed, for the GOP to show its gratitude to its Religious Right base.

Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a Religious Right lobbying group also founded by Dobson, complained that some in the White House – namely First Lady Laura Bush and Mary Cheney, the vice president’s daughter – had made public statements undermining the alleged urgency of the marriage amendment.

Mary Cheney criticized it as an effort to “write discrimination into the Constitution.” Mrs. Bush told Fox News that discussion of gay marriage “requires a lot of sensitivity” and should not “be used as a campaign tool.”

Perkins complained to The Washington Times, “The only thing we’re hearing now from the administration are either comments that are totally opposed to the amendment or those that appear to be opposed to the amendment.”

Perkins grumbled that the White House needed to get active on the subject.

“It’s not that we are demanding this, but when the First Lady is disparaging the issue, and when the Vice President lets stand unrebutted Mary Cheney’s claims, we think some demonstration of presidential leadership is warranted – and over due,” Perkins said in an e-mail sent to supporters in early May.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (and a staunch Bush supporter), also weighed in, telling The New York Times, “A lot of people are disappointed that [Bush] hasn’t put as much effort into the marriage amendment as he did for the prescription drug benefit or Social Security reform.”

The pressure on Bush and Republican leaders came when domestic polls for both Congress and the president were precipitously low.

According to Fred Barnes, an editor with the conservative Weekly Standard and a Fox News pundit, the pro-amendment lobbying emanated solely from Religious Right activists.

In a June 6 piece for the Weekly Standard, Barnes reported that the marriage amendment stood little chance of passing, but that a vote would occur because of the outcry from Religious Right lobbyists.

Barnes claimed that no GOP senators had badgered Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to bring the amendment to the floor for a vote.

“Instead,” Barnes wrote, “his talks with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council led Frist to put at least a day of debate on the amendment, then a vote, on the Senate schedule.”

Barnes also asserted that Republican senators were more aligned with Mrs. Bush’s thinking on the subject.

“They’d prefer the issue – and the amendment – go away,” he wrote.

But the Religious Right also had influential allies in the marriage fight. Others calling for an amendment included the Roman Catholic hierarchy and several other prominent religious leaders. Their support only helped underscore what Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been arguing for years – that the federal marriage amendment is a vehicle to enshrine into the Constitution the majority faiths’ beliefs about marriage.

In late April, seven Catholic cardinals and archbishops joined an array of other conservative religious leaders in signing a petition to Congress stating that marriage is “sanctioned by and or­dained of God” and urging Congress to approve the amendment.

The petition drive was coordinated by long-time right-wing activist Robert George, a Princeton professor who has served on the board of the Family Research Council. (George, a critic of church-state separation, has also crafted a bill that would strip federal courts of the power to hear challenges to government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments.)

While some denominations supported the amendment, many clergy and religious groups lined up to oppose it.

In mid-May, Clergy For Fairness launched a Web site (www.clergyforfairness.org) that featured a joint letter that faith leaders could sign to express opposition to the proposed constitutional change. The letter stated that passage and ratification of the federal marriage amendment “would mark the first time in history that an amendment to the Constitution would restrict the civil rights of an entire group of Americans.”

The letter quickly gathered more than 2,000 signatures and was delivered to senators before they started debating the amendment. On May 22, some 30 representatives of Clergy For Fairness gathered to speak to reporters in the Senate’s Dirksen Office Building.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Simmons, an ordained Baptist minister and president of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, led the conference by saying that while the diverse group of religious voices differed on gay marriage and gay rights in general, they were all “united in our opposition to the federal marriage amendment.”

Simmons, who is also a University of Louisville professor, called the marriage amendment completely unwarranted. He charged that the drive for it is primarily fueled by the nation’s Religious Right.

“Let there be no mistake about it: there is a broad and profound opposition to the proposed amendment among religious people,” Simmons said. “The thunder of the Religious Right should be resisted as misguided and prejudicial, an effort to deprive a certain group of people in the United States, who are citizens, of rights guaranteed for the rest of us, and under the Constitution, we take them for granted.”

Many pundits and reporters chalked up the Senate action on the amendment to election-year politicking. The president took the opportunity to reach out to religious conservatives.

Bush used his June 3 national radio address to tout the amendment.“Marriage cannot be cut off from its cultural, religious, and natural roots without weakening this good influence on society,” he said.

On June 5, he gave a 10-minute speech promoting the amendment at the White House, a couple of days before the Senate was scheduled to vote on cutting off debate to bring it to the floor for consideration.

Among those attending the White House event were Dobson, Perkins, Land, Paul Weyrich, Chuck Colson, the Alliance Defense Fund’s Alan Sears, Southern Baptist Con­vention President Bobby Welch, Ohio televangelist Rod Parsley and Jim Daly, president of Dobson’s Focus on the Family Action.

Mimicking Religious Right rhetoric, the president accused “activist judges” of undermining marriage and declared that the “union of a man and woman in marriage is the most enduring and important human institution.”

While some Religious Right leaders had been agitated by Bush’s limited interest in the amendment, his actions temporarily placated many of them.

In a “Weekly Alert” e-mail to his supporters, Sears thanked Bush for his “STRONG endorsement.” Perkins lauded the president’s radio address in his “Washington Update” e-mail.

Debate on the marriage amendment in the Senate was relatively fleeting. After commencing discussion on June 5, the Senate took a vote two days later that effectively killed the measure.

Americans United hailed the defeat of the marriage amendment.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the Senate vote “was election-year politics at its worst. I’m glad the amendment was derailed, but it never should have been voted on. This vote was nothing but ammo for attack ads.”

The New York Times editorial page saw it the same way, claiming in a June editorial that “the real purpose” behind the Senate debate on the federal marriage amendment was “to provide red meat to social conservatives, and fodder for commercials aimed at senators who vote to block the atrocious amendment.”

Religious Right activists were swift in denouncing the Senate’s failure to advance the amendment, promising retaliation against senators who didn’t vote for it.

In a statement to his group’s Web magazine, Dobson fumed, “The future of our society and our children’s well-being depends on the passage of the Marriage Protection Amendment. It becomes clearer every day that support is building in the states to ratify the amendment should it ever make its way out of Congress. We and millions of other conservatives are committed to doing what it takes, for as long as it takes, to see that great institution of marriage is protected from renegade judges.”

Dobson’s Focus on the Family Action bought newspaper and radio ads in 13 states where senators were considered wobbly on the amendment. The ads, in part, stated that the time had come “for these wishy-washy senators to show their true colors – either they support traditional marriage and believe every child should have a mom and a dad, or they do not.”

Dobson told The New York Times that the Senate showdown would “help the voters identify who is and is not supportive of the family. And I think those that are not are going to have to answer for it.”

The FRC’s Perkins issued a June 7 statement saying the Senate was “grossly out of step with the American people” and cryptically added that discussions were under way to form a political action committee that would focus “on removing the obstacles to the passage and ratification” of the amendment.

According to conservative columnist Robert Novak, top leaders of the amendment drive met at the FRC’s Washington headquarters to consider alternatives. The group, Novak wrote, discussed “the possibility of an unprecedented Constitutional Convention.” Novak noted that 34 state legislatures need to approve such a convention and that even if the convention passed the federal marriage amendment, 38 state legislatures would still need to ratify it.

Americans United strongly opposes the calling of a Constitutional Convention, noting that the entire Constitution would be in danger of being rewritten if such a gathering were convened.

Weyrich, in a June 13 column for GOPUSA, groused that the Republican Senate leadership and the president did not “twist arms until it hurts” on the marriage amendment because they do not sufficiently fear “pro-family movement leaders.”

“If the pro-family movement is serious it must get into the States and defeat a whole number of incumbents,” wrote Weyrich. “Also those Senators who voted no should never be nominated by their party for the Presidency of the United States.”

The Religious Right will get another chance to force the gay marriage debate into public view. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters shortly after the Senate’s action, that the House would consider its version of the marriage amendment in July.

“We have significant numbers of our members who want to vote on this, so we are going to have a vote,” Boehner said.