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Foes of Gay Marriage Find New Momentum

August 01, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When the Supreme Court in June struck down laws that made gay sex a crime, gay activists celebrated what they viewed as a major step toward wider social acceptance.

Five weeks later, that same court ruling has energized and broadened support for what had been a largely lifeless effort to fight the establishment of gay marriage in the United States.

Before the ruling, supporters in the House of a constitutional amendment that would more formally restrict marriage to the union of a man and a woman were having trouble attracting sponsors. After the ruling, the number of co-sponsors has nearly quadrupled, to 75.

President Bush and the Vatican both made strong statements opposing gay marriage this week, and the Vatican called on Catholics and other "moral" people to strive to defeat efforts to legalize same-sex unions.

The Supreme Court's ruling appears to have hit a nerve with Americans. Public opposition to legal civil unions between gay couples grew from 49% in May to 57% now, according to opinion polling by the Gallup organization.

Now the battlefield shifts to state courts in New Jersey and Massachusetts, which are considering cases that could legalize gay marriage. Their rulings will keep the issue alive during the coming political season. The Massachusetts decision could come anytime, but the New Jersey court will probably take more time to rule.

The Supreme Court, ruling June 26 that gays deserved privacy and dignity in their personal lives, struck down laws in Texas and 12 other states that prohibited sex between gays, even in the privacy of their homes.

The court described same-sex relationships as a "personal bond," protected by the Constitution. That led many conservatives to say with alarm that the court was just a small step away from permitting gays who establish such personal bonds to marry.

"The sweeping nature of the language of the Texas case has startled people who thought that this issue was years away from becoming a big controversy," said Gary Bauer, a political leader among conservative Christians and founder of a suburban Washington think tank called American Values. "If any state court tries to impose this, the momentum will accelerate many times over."

Gay advocacy groups agree that the Supreme Court decision and the coming state cases have enlivened their opponents.

"There's no question about the fact that the anti-gay right is fired up about the Supreme Court decision," said David Smith, a spokesman for one group, the Human Rights Campaign.

The organizations also agree that the court decision's impact has been felt by the broader public.

"The country definitely is wrestling with the issue," Smith said. "But at the end of the day, Americans always come out on the side of fairness, and they will in this case too."

Smith said the public would come to understand that gay and lesbian couples were seeking the legal protection of marriage -- such as survivors' benefits and insurance -- and not challenging any religion's definition of marriage.

But conservative Christians and the Vatican argue that marriage cannot be parsed into its civil and religious components. They consider the push for gay marriage an attack on traditional marriage.

The document released by the Vatican on Thursday declared that "legal recognition of homosexual unions would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage."

The Vatican said Catholic lawmakers have the "moral duty" to publicly oppose efforts to legalize gay marriage and to vote against them.

The issue of gay marriage is also a major concern at the general convention of the Episcopal Church, which opened in Minneapolis on Wednesday. The convention faces a debate over whether to begin drafting blessings for same-sex unions.

Bush stated his position at a news conference Wednesday. "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman," he said. "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," he said.

Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Thursday that the White House was monitoring the court cases in New Jersey and Massachusetts to determine how the government might respond. Supporters of a House bill that would amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage were disappointed that the president had not supported their measure. With or without the president's support, their effort is gaining momentum, they said.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said that when he tried to sell the idea to his colleagues before the Supreme Court decision, "people would scratch their heads and say, 'Why do you need a constitutional amendment?' "

"A lot of us were laboring a bit in obscurity on this issue," he said.

Now, he said, the issue has made him popular among his colleagues, who say they are hearing from their constituents that they must block gay marriage. "I think you will continue to see a groundswell from the grass roots up," he said.

Pence said he believed that the constitutional amendment was the only effective legislative way to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage if the Supreme Court ultimately sanctions gay marriage, as he expects it will. He predicted that one of the cases moving through state courts would soon end up in the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, conservatives predicted the issue would emerge as a touchstone issue of the 2004 election campaign.

"Members of Congress and politicians around the country are increasingly aware that this is an issue they're going to have to take a stand on," said Genevieve Wood, vice president of Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group.

"There's nothing bigger than a Supreme Court decision," said Scott Lively, director of the Pro-Family Law Center, a Sacramento-based Christian legal organization. "For the Supreme Court to have ruled as it did, it's like a boulder being thrown into a small pond. Everyone is going to feel the waves."

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