The Rev. Jerry Falwell is on the warpath again.
Promoting a petition drive on behalf of a Federal Marriage Amenddment, Falwell has lately and loudly started proclaiming that the efforts of gay Americans to achieve equality under the law are threatening the survival of the republic and the future of Christianity.
In an August e-mail to his supporters, Falwell quoted right-wing columnist Pat Buchanan to insist that "Christianity, dying in Europe, is under siege in America." In particular, Falwell believes that lesbians and gay men are bent on destroying Christianity by undermining heterosexual marriage.
"We must aggressively combat the homosexual effort to destroy the tradition of marriage," Falwell declared in a July statement. "This nation is on the precipice of moral devastation."
Falwell is not alone in painting gays as the enemies of "Judeo-Christian" values. In a bid to attract new recruits, raise gobs of money and polarize American politics, Religious Right leaders from an array of groups have launched a major crusade to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting marriage to one man and one woman.
Adding to the volatile mix is the belief by many Religious Right leaders that their demands for a federal marriage amendment will force President George W. Bush to move more in their direction in the months leading up to the 2004 general elections.
The catalyst for the latest Religious Right campaign was a late June Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Texas law criminalizing gay sex and declared that gays "are entitled to respect for their private lives."
The 6-3 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas provoked an over-the-top response in a dissent from ultraconservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia proclaimed that Lawrence would prompt a "massive disruption of the current social order." He also accused the majority, which was led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan appointee, of having "largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda."
It was not much of a leap for religious broadcasters such as Falwell and James Dobson to declare the Lawrence decision to be the precursor of gay marriage in America. Thus a Religious Right juggernaut was launched to amend the U.S. Constitution to enshrine in American law the movement's version of marriage. Some among the Religious Right also unleashed a torrent of vituperative rhetoric aimed at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Shortly after the high court handed down Lawrence, Religious Right leaders Pat Robertson and Traditional Values Coalition President Lou Sheldon took an ominous sounding aim at the Supreme Court justices.
"In this court, you do not have friends of the Judeo-Christian standard," Shedldon said. "We know who our friends are. And we know who needs to be replaced."
In a letter to his supporters, Robertson asked if they would "join with me and many others in crying out to our Lord to change the Court?" Robertson lambasted the Lawrence court, saying it had created a "constitutional right to consensual sodomy and, by the language in its decision, has opened the door to homosexual marriage, bigamy, legalized prostitution, and even incest."
The strident push to amend the Constitution to bar gay marriages did not develop overnight. Indeed, for many years now, social conservatives and Religious Right leaders have publicly condemned gays as sinners unfit for equal treatment under American law.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton quietly signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which holds that no state would have to recognize same-sex unions that were sanctioned in other states. The problem with DOMA, acdcordding to the Religious Right, is that it could be invalidated by a federal court on the grounds it runs afoul of Article IV of the Constitution. That provision requires that "Full Faith and Credit shall be given each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State."
And in 1999, a religiously based group called the Alliance for Marriage was launched with the goals of "promoting marriage and addressing the crisis of family disintegration in the United States." In 2001, the group drafted a proposed Federal Marriage Amenddment that would proclaim, "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman." Matt Daniels, the Alliance for Marriage president, declared that gays "don't have a right to redefine marriage for our entire society."
Though the Alliance was able to persuade a few conservative members of the House to introduce the proposed amendment in Congress, it failed to attract much attention and languished in committee.
But as summer 2003 drifted into history, the Alliance's proposal began garnering more supporters inside and outside the Beltway. A new member of the House, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), took up the Alliance's cause and introduced its proposed constitutional amendment, H. J. Res. 56, in the 108th Congress.
Musgrave told Christianity Today that Christians must take a stand against efforts by gays to gain equality.
"In this cultural war," Musgrave said, "we cannot lose this one."
Also jumping into the fray was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who publicly announced his support for the proposed constitutional amendment. It states, "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."
At a press briefing in late June not long after Lawrence was issued, Frist used religious terminology to endorse the measure. He said he strongly believes "that marriage is a sacrament and that sacrament should extend, and can extend, to that legal entity of a union between what is traditionally in our western values been defined as between a man and a woman."
Religious Right leaders also began urging their members to sign petitions to be sent to lawmakers urging them to pass the marriage amendment.
The American Family Association's petition to Congress contains the declaration that "traditional marriage between a man and woman is the God-ordained building block of the family and bedrock of a civil society. "
Dobson's Focus on the Family is also urging its members and supporters to sign AFA's petition.
"We are proud to partner with AFA on making Christian voices heard on this vital issue," Dobson's CitizenLink, an FOF website, states. According to an Aug. 17 report from The Washington Post, Dobson's group plans "to spend as much energy and political capital as necessary to stop gay marriage in its tracks."
Falwell's petition supporting the proposed marriage amendment is seeking one million signatures calling on Congress to "save the sanctity of marriage."
Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalidtion has also actively promoted the federal marriage amendment. From the TVC web site, Sheldon accuses gay rights activists of working to "abolish the notion of family altogether." According to Sheldon, "Children need to grow up in strong male-female headed families, not in same-sex communes filled with sexually obsessed drifters." In mid-August, the Post reported that Sheldon's group was sending out 1.5 million mailings a month to its members and allies urging them to contact lawmakers in Congress to demand they support the amendment.
Religious Right leaders have won some support from conservative religious denominations.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, provided its members with a list of alleged horrors that might occur if the marriage amendment were to fail. According to a late June statement from the SBC website, if the Constitution is not altered to bar same-sex marriages, pastors "may be restricted from performing heterosexual marriages if they refuse to perform homosexual marriages," and the nation would officially endorse "sexual deviancy."
Top officials of the Roman Catholic Church in America announced in early September that they plan to endorse a proposed amendment to the Constitution. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said church leaders would help "others who are similarly concerned with preserving the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious understanding of marriage in society."
Gregory apparently was heeding the Vatican's demand that Catholics worldwide oppose legal efforts that would allow for gay marriages or unions. In late July, the Vatican issued a 12-page document that warned lawmakers against granting "approval or legalization of evil...." The document furthermore proclaimed that Catholic elected officials had a "moral duty" to oppose attempts to recognize gay marriages.
"To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral," the Vatican's directive reads.
The efforts of the Religious Right appear to be having some effect on the debate surrounding gay marriage. Inddeed, national polls taken shortly after the Lawrence ruling revealed an uptick in the number of Americans who oppose gay marriages.
President George W. Bush has also indicated that he may support the proposed constitutional amendment.
In a late July Rose Garden press briefing, Bush said he had instructed White House lawyers to determine the best way to "codify" the definition of marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman. The announcement was apparently a sop to Religious Right leaders who want the Constitution to reflect their views.
Using biblical language familiar to evangelicals, the president said he was "mindful that we're all sinners" and cautioned against "those who may try to take the speck out of their neighbor's eye when they got a log in their own." Bush said, however, that he does not need to compromise on marriage, which he defined as being between a man and a woman.
"I believe in the sanctity of marriage," he said.
Bush's comments were lauded by social and religious conservatives, but questioned by pundits.
Robert Scheer, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, condemned Bush for "defining marriage in religious terms." Scheer wrote that it was typical for religious leaders, such as the pope, to oppose gay marriage, but the "president of the United States, as the highest official in our secular government, is overstepping his bounds mightily when he lectures about 'sin' and 'the sanctity of marriage.'"
Columnists for The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also raised concerns about the melding of church and state regarding marriage. In her Aug. 10 column, Cynthia Tucker, the Journal-Constitution's editorial page editor, suggested that the "last thing the nation needs is for its religious conservatives to hijack the U.S. Constitution."
Maureen Dowd, the Times' nationally syndicated columnist, wrote in her Aug. 3 column that the "Last time I checked, we had separation of church and state, so I don't know why the president is talking about sin, or why he is implying that gays who want to make a permanent commitment in a world full of divorce and loneliness are sinners.""Last time I checked, we had separation of church and state, so I don't know why the president is talking about sin...."
- Maureen Dowd, New York Times Columnist
It seems doubtful that Bush would oppose amending the Constitution, especially since his senior political adviser has gone public with the administration's desire to attract more evangelicals to the polls in 2004. In December 2001, Karl Rove, Bush's top campaign strategist, went before an enthusiastic audience hosted by the ultraconservative Amerdican Enterprise Institute and declared that his boss must do a better job of energizing the nation's evangelicals.
At least one longtime critic of the gay rights movement publicly questioned the renewed and energized drive to amend the Constitution. Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr and author of the Defense of Marriage Act said amending the Constitution should be rejected. In an Aug. 21 column for The Washington Post, Barr said the "constitutional amendment is both unnecessary and needlessly punitive."
Prominent Republican and former senator Alan Simpson in an early September column in the Post also argued against amending the Constidtution. Calling himself "basically conservative," Simpson said that traditionally amendments to the Constitution were "designed to expand the sphere of freedom, with one notorious exception: prohibition."
Simpson also challenged the argument offered by the Religious Right that gay marriage would result in a degradation of American society.
"As our country has gained honest and steady knowledge about homosexuality, we have learned that it is not a mental illness or a disease or a threat to our families," Simpson wrote. "The real threats to family values are divorce, out-of-wedlock births and infidelity."
Changing the Constitution is not an easy task. The proposed amendment must pass both houses of Congress by a two-thirds majority and then must be approved by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. Religious Right leaders, however, are more determined than ever to push their vision for family, based on their readings of scripture, on the entire American populace.
Falwell, Dobson, Sheldon, Robertson and their ilk are employing heated rhetoric and an abundance of resources to whip their supporters into a panic over the future of marriage in America. They are urging their members to pressure congressional lawmakers and the president to fall in line.
At present, the House proposal to amend the Constitution relating to marriage has 81 cosponsors and is pending in the Subcommittee on the Constidtution. Despite Majority Leader Frist's public expression of support for the marriage amendment, as of early September, no companion bill had been introduced in the Senate.
Some civil rights activists are accusing the Religious Right of shamelessly using religion to derail efforts to expand civil liberties for all Americans.
"In a secular democracy, this is a legal question, not a religious question," Tony Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and gay rights activist, told The New York Times. "The debate over gay marriage should not be on religious grounds."