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Monday, February 09, 2004  

Analysis: Gay unions the issue for Christian Right

Christian conservatives have decided to rally around opposition to gay marriage as their focus issue for the campaign season. Having their candidate win the White House, with the help of the U.S. Supreme Court, turned out to be a mixed bag. Since, far Right Christian organizations have had difficulty attracting attention and raising money with the direct mail campaigns they rely on. One issue they've used to galvanize their public is continuing agitation to erode the constitutional safeguards against establishment of religion. Another, disapproval of gays marrying, has now emerged as prime. The New York Times recently investigated.

"Things have not gone well in the past couple of years," said Paul M. Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation. "The movement had not been gaining members, it has not been winning battles, with the exception of the pro-life issue, and those were marginal battles. This issue has come along and it appears to be turning things around."

The cause took on new energy after leading Christian conservatives congregated last summer.

Last spring, the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., decided to hold a summit meeting of the Christian conservative movement.

Mr. Wildmon felt the movement was losing the culture war, he recalled in an interview on Friday. Since plunging into political activism nearly 30 years ago, Christian conservatives had helped Republicans take control of Washington but did not have enough to show for it, Mr. Wildmon said. At the same time, the election of Republican politicians had drained some of the motivation out of its grass-roots constituents.

So Mr. Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association and a crusader against sex and violence in the media, sent an e-mail message inviting about two dozen other prominent Christian conservatives to a meeting in Arlington, Va., last June. About 14 people turned up with no set agenda, Mr. Wildmon recalled.

"All we knew was we were going to get together and see if there were some issues of concern that we could agree on and combine our efforts," Mr. Wildmon said.

"The first thing that popped up," he said, "was the federal marriage amendment."

The participants carved together their initial plan for promoting a constitutional amendment to ban gay unions. Two legal decisions, SCOTUS' ruling that the right to privacy protects gays engaged in sex acts, and a recent state court opinion that held refusing homosexuals matrimony denies them equal protection, have continued to motivate the persons involved.

Several people at the Arlington meeting said their constituents were more concerned about gay marriage than about almost any other issue. "I have never seen anything that has energized and provoked our grass roots like this issue, including Roe v. Wade," said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has 16 million members.

Then, the road turned rocky. Most of the Christian Right leaders wanted language that unequivocally denied gays marital rights.

But almost as soon as the Arlington meeting began, the discussion turned to a debate over the language of an amendment. For years, the Alliance for Marriage, an ecumenical group, had pushed for a constitutional amendment to prevent courts from forcing states or the country to recognize same-sex marriages. Echoing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the proposed amendment would allow state legislatures to recognize gay civil unions, a provision that had alienated many conservatives. Though the proposed amendment had been introduced in Congress last spring, the Christian Coalition was one of the few organizations in the Arlington group to support it.

Most of the others considered it far too permissive. "I don't care if you call it civil unions," Michael P. Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, said last week. "I don't care if you call it domestic partnership, I don't care if you call it cantaloupe soup, if you are legally spouses at the end of the day, I am not willing to do that."

Though some of the most hardline left the fold, the proposal that emerged fit the model the Alliance for Marriage wanted. It offers a compromise, recognition of quasi-marital rights in lieu of allowing gays to wed. However, the proposal has run head on into the decision of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, which expressly forbids civil unions for gays.

In a 4-3 ruling, the court gave the Massachusetts state Legislature six months to rewrite the state's marriage laws for the benefit of gay couples.

The ruling by the court on the Massachusetts Constitution could set new legal ground, and drew quick reaction from advocates on both sides of the issue. Massachusetts' governor immediately denounced Tuesday's decision and said he would work for a constitutional amendment to overturn it. But an openly gay U.S. congressman from the state said the amendment couldn't come before the voters before 2006, and by that time same-sex marriages will be law.

If other state courts take the same stance, the proposed amendment will be meaningless.

Leaders of the movement met with presidential advisor Karl Rove recently. They say they were told President George Bush is fully behind their proposal. However, signals from the White House have continued to be cautious, not echoing the strident tone of the activists.

So far, however, the president has yet to publicly fulfill Mr. Rove's private assurances. In a statement after the Massachusetts court affirmed its ruling last week, Mr. Bush called the decision "deeply troubling" but again offered only conditional support for an amendment. "If activist judges insist on redefining marriage by court order, the only alternative will be the constitutional process," he said, without using the word "amendment."

In addition to the proposed constitutional amendment, opponents to gay marriage in states that permit a form of it, Vermont and Massachusetts, and soon, California, can appeal to the the U.S. Supreme Court. It seems doubtful that the Court will choose to wade into the issue, though. Traditionally, states determine the rules of relationships in the domestic sphere.

The most significant change in American political scene during the last decades was the emergence of the GOP's Southern Strategy. It encouraged the exodus of working and middle-class white Americans from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. That in turn, resulted in conservative dominance of federal politics. The GOP has also increased its share of governorships and other state offices. If the Christian Right has its way, the opposition to gay unions will bolster the gains made by the Southern strategy. But, will Bush stick? The answer to that question may determine whether gay rights will be the dominant domestic political issue in this decade, as opposition to civil rights legislation was during the the 1960s.

On the same page

Natalie Davis has posted a description of a gay marriage in (gasp!) 1973 at All Facts and Opinions.

It was love at first sight. They had met at the elevator just outside the sixth-floor tearoom of the Atlanta YMCA, September 2, 1973. They were both native Southerners; one white, the other black. They commuted, as lovers often do, 100 miles every weekend for five months just to be with each other. Not one of their friends was surprised when they decided to marry.

Charles2 at the Fulcrum sees the similarity between separate but equal in a racial context and in regard to sexual preference.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court got it exactly right (WSJ) yesterday. And it was wonderful to hear - finally - a high court use the language of the civil rights movement in discussing this issue.

Whatever you call the legal union of two people, the rights of that couple should not be different based on; race, color, creed, national origin or sexual orientation. We've done the whole "separate but equal" thing before. You'd think we'd have learned our lesson.

•In an entry last summer, Victor at Balusubramania's Mania, referred to Andrew Sullivan's statement: "What about being homosexual obligates one to be a Democrat? Or a lefty? Nothing, absolutely nothing." It seems to me that the question is becoming an easier one. If the Bush administration fully supports the Christian Right in regard to gay marriage, which he has backed, even Sullivan may have to part company with the Republicans.

7:08 AM