Trying to reconnect with his conservative base in the run-up to a pivotal mid-term election in November, President Bush again stated his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on Monday (June 5).
In a speech delivered at the White House, the president said, "marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization and it should not be redefined by activist judges."
Speaking to an audience he described as "community leaders, scholars, family organizations, religious leaders, Republicans and Democrats," Bush said he was proud to stand with the group on its support of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. He urged Congress the pass the amendment, again invoking the specter of "activist judges," a threat he referred to more than a half-dozen times in the 10-minute address.
It was the second time in two days that Bush had weighed in on the controversial topic, following his comments during his weekly radio address on Saturday in which he said a constitutional amendment was necessary because activist courts "have left our nation with no other choice."
The strong push from Bush was seen by many as an attempt by the president to rally his conservative base amid near record-low approval ratings and emerging signs that Democrats could make solid gains in the House and Senate in November, which could stymie Bush's agenda for the remainder of his term. Until this weekend, Bush had barely mentioned the topic of gay marriage since the 2004 presidential race (see "President Bush Calls For Amendment Banning Same-Sex Marriage").
During the Monday address, Bush said, "For ages, in every culture, human beings have understood that marriage is critical to the well-being of families. And because families pass along values and shape character, marriage is also critical to the health of society. Our policies should aim to strengthen families, not undermine them."
Bush framed the debate as a fight between the right of the American people to decide on the "fundamental social issue of marriage" and the "aggressive" tactics of judges and local legislatures seeking to redefine the institution.
Bush ended by making a plea for tolerance in the debate, asking those on both sides to discuss the issue with civility and decency toward one another. "All people deserve to have their voices heard and a constitutional amendment will ensure that they are heard," he said.
Despite the strong rhetoric, the speech was seen by many as a largely empty gesture, as it is widely thought that the amendment prohibiting states from recognizing same-sex marriages does not have enough votes to pass in Congress.
Following three days of debate, the Senate is voting on the amendment this week and the House could take it up as early as July. But to become law, the measure would have to get a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House and be ratified by at least 38 state legislatures, which is unlikely.
According to The Associated Press, the proposed amendment has just more than 50 of the needed 67 votes in the 100-member Senate, with several Republicans opposing it and only one Democrat, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, vowing to vote for it. A recent Pew Research poll found that only slightly more than half of Americans favor the amendment, a nearly 15 point drop from the numbers in a similar poll from 2004.
The amendment was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 18 along party lines after a tense debate that ended in a shouting match between Democrat Russ Feingold and the chairman, Republican Arlen Specter (see "Senate Committee Approves Amendment Banning Same-Sex Marriage"). Feingold walked out of the meeting and Specter bid him "good riddance."
The last time the issue came before the Senate, in the 2004 election year, only 48 Senators voted for it.
"This is all about politics," said one of the measure's opponents, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who is also a minister in the United Church of Christ. "There is no one in Washington who believes this amendment will pass. The president has no role in the process of amending the Constitution and [these] actions are to remind his base that he is on their side on the 'social' issues."
Lynn said the support for the amendment could be a reaction to recent grumblings from Christian conservatives that Bush wasn't doing enough on those social issues, but he doubted it could help the president's sagging poll numbers (see "The 50-Point Drop: How Did Bush Fall This Far?").
"They're so low that in desperation he's resorting to this," Lynn said. "I don't think it will have much of an effect because it's hard to get any lower than [his current poll numbers] short of criminal charges being filed. The benefit is to get members of the Senate on record, so that the ones who vote against it can be declared anti-God or anti-family when the elections come in November."
Massachusetts' Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages in 2003 (see "Same-Sex Couples Marry — Legally — For The First Time In U.S."). The next year, 13 states approved initiatives banning gay marriage or civil unions. This November, same-sex marriage initiatives are expected to be on the ballot in Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Prior to Bush's comments on Monday, White House spokesperson Tony Snow said the issue of gay marriage is of "keen interest to a lot of people." He said the proposed amendment would still permit states to make "arrangements" for same-sex couples that do not involve marriage.