JUNE 6, 2006, is an important date, not only because it's the 62nd anniversary of D-Day. It's also the day the Senate will vote on the so-called marriage amendment, which would amend the Constitution to restrict marriage in America to a man and a woman.
It won't pass. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate and the House. When the Senate voted in 2004, the amendment got only 48 votes. This time, it's likely to get more--probably between 52 and 58--in part because a powerful and unusually ecumenical religious coalition is now backing the amendment. And President Bush, despite his wife Laura's admonition that the marriage issue ought to be kept out of politics, plans to host a pro-amendment event at the White House and speak out in favor of the amendment.
Once dismissed as a sop to social conservatives, the proposed amendment has become a serious rallying point for opponents of same-sex marriage. The June 6 vote will put senators on the record and make their position on the amendment a potential campaign issue. And the formation of the religious coalition means the issue won't go away soon.
Much of the conventional wisdom about the amendment and the marriage issue turns out to be wrong. For instance, the amendment is not being pushed by Republicans as a wedge issue aimed at dividing Democratic voters. Republican senators regard the issue as touchy and awkward. In fact, they agree with First Lady Laura Bush, who said on Fox News Sunday that the subject of gay marriage "requires a lot of sensitivity" and shouldn't "be used as a campaign tool." They'd prefer the issue--and the amendment--go away.
When Majority Leader Bill Frist asked Senate Republican committee chairmen in 2004 if they wanted him to schedule a vote on the amendment, none urged him to. Frist did anyway. This year, the same was true. He received no pressure from Republican senators for a vote. Instead, 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.
The hands-off attitude of Republican senators, Perkins says, "does not reflect what's happening in the states." Whenever a referendum barring same-sex marriage gets on the ballot, it's nearly always approved by 70 percent or more of voters, he noted.
A second misconception is that it's sufficient for an elected official merely to declare his opposition to gay marriage. It's not anymore. The question now is whether an official will support efforts to block gay marriage from being imposed by judges at the federal or state level. And the way to do that in the Senate is to vote for the amendment.
The conventional wisdom in the political community is also wrong on another point: that the marriage amendment won't have a significant role in the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. It will. A Gallup poll found two-thirds of Republicans back the amendment. Perkins, for one, insists the marriage issue has "reached the same plane as the right to life issue" among Republican voters. "I don't think you can win the presidential nomination without endorsing the marriage amendment," Perkins says.
This is a huge problem for Senator John McCain, the Republican frontrunner in 2008. McCain has moved to the right on taxes and abortion and recently reconciled with Jerry Falwell, the prominent conservative Christian. He drew sharp criticism for the Falwell overture and is leery of shifting again and being accused of pandering to the Christian Right.
McCain voted against the amendment in 2004. And he repeated his opposition on Fox News Sunday last month. "I will vote against it because I believe very strongly, first of all, in the sanctity of union between man and woman, but I also believe that the states should make these decisions." Many religious conservatives regard this as an unacceptable dodge.
Why? Because states have already been thwarted in their efforts to make these decisions. The problem is not voters or legislators. They overwhelmingly support traditional marriage. Thirty-seven states have enacted laws in recent years--19 by referendum, the others by statute--to bar gay marriage. The problem is judges. On May 16, a Georgia judge struck down the state's ban on gay marriage, which had been enacted in 2004 with 76 percent of the vote. The judge seized on a technical point, ruling the referendum covered two issues, same-sex marriage and civil unions, and not one, as Georgia law required. In truth, the referendum was drafted to deal with one issue, the protection of heterosexual marriage. At least nine states face lawsuits challenging their traditional marriage laws.
In Nebraska as well, a federal judge on May 12 nullified a referendum barring gay marriage. And in Massachusetts, the state supreme court by a 4-3 vote imposed same sex marriage, basing its decision on a state constitution adopted centuries before gay marriage became an issue.
In response, the Religious Coalition for Marriage was formed specifically to back the amendment. It grew out of two conferences of religious leaders and academics organized by Professor Robert George of Princeton. George and others found politicians, even conservative ones, are "afraid" to oppose gay marriage by backing the amendment: "They don't like to talk about it." The coalition was created to put strong public pressure on both politicians and judges.
The coalition's initial statement said: "We take the unprecedented stand of uniting to call for a constitutional amendment to establish a uniform national definition of marriage as the exclusive union of one man and one woman. . . . This is the only measure that will adequately protect marriage from those who would circumvent the legislative process and force a redefinition of it on the whole of our society."
What's surprising about the coalition is its breadth. It includes all eight Catholic cardinals in America, liberal and conservative, plus officials of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Church of God in Christ, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), among others.
As for Bush, he will appear on June5 in the Rose Garden before a gathering of amendment supporters and, a White House official says, "strongly support" the amendment. The president has rarely mentioned the amendment in the past. The choice of the Rose Garden as a venue means he is raising the marriage amendment to a higher level on his agenda, his wife's advice notwithstanding.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and author of Rebel-in-Chief (Crown Forum).