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Conservatives divided over amendment to ban gay marriage
White House avoids taking a strong stance
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times
Wednesday, July 2, 2003
2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback


Washington -- Two days after the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, embraced a constitutional amendment that would effectively ban gay marriage, the White House on Tuesday declined to endorse it, and conservatives were divided over whether such an amendment is necessary.

"The president believes that marriage is an institution between a man and a woman," Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters Tuesday.

But when Fleischer was pressed on whether the president supports a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, he did not take a firm stand, instead saying the issue was "a question in the legal realm."

Frist made his views known in a Sunday interview on ABC's "This Week," signaling that the issue of gay marriage is likely to become a theme for Republicans during the next election campaign. Many conservatives are outraged over the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn a Texas law banning sodomy, a ruling they see as opening the door to the legalization of same-sex unions.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who angered many gays earlier this year with his remarks linking homosexuality to polygamy and incest, wrote to constituents last year to express support for the legislation, dubbed the Federal Marriage Amendment. Santorum is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate leadership.

But other conservatives Tuesday expressed caution. "Regardless of how you feel about gay marriage, I don't know that it's a good idea to put it in the Constitution," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., in an interview.

Still, the Supreme Court decision in the Texas case, coupled with a recent decision in Canada to permit gay marriage, suggests the debate will only grow louder. Courts in several states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, are expected to rule on cases involving same-sex unions.

"This is going to be just like abortion," said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group. "What you have is the court using the same theoretical underpinnings, the so-called right to privacy,

to try to be the ultimate arbiter of an intractable social issue."

But Connor said his group favored changing the courts, not the Constitution.

"There is nothing wrong with the Constitution," he said. "What needs to happen is the executive branch and the legislative branch need to begin to act like a co-equal coordinate branch of government and rein in this rampant judicial activism."

The amendment, promoted by a nonprofit, nonpartisan group called the Alliance for Marriage, has been introduced in the House but not in the Senate. It would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, said Matt Daniels, the group's president.

Frist said he was concerned that the court, in defining a "zone of privacy, " was laying the groundwork for criminal activity in the home to be condoned.

"And I'm thinking of, whether it's prostitution or illegal commercial drug activity in the home, and to have the courts come in in this zone of privacy and begin to define it gives me some concern," he said.

The remarks have put Frist -- a surgeon turned lawmaker who is usually more closely associated with health issues like Medicare and global AIDS than with the causes of social conservatives -- squarely inside what Justice Antonin Scalia, in a bitter dissent in the Texas case, called "the culture war" over gay rights.

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