Last November, a delegation of top Religious Right leaders trooped into the White House for a special meeting with President George W. Bush. They had come to push their agenda, and one goal was at the top of the list: to pressure Bush to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage.
James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other powerful allies pressed Bush to quickly and forcefully endorse an amendment, claiming it would ensure the vitality of marriage in America, according to an account in The Wall Street Journal. They hoped the president would tout their proposal in his State of the Union Address in January.
That meeting would not be the last time the Religious Right would lobby the White House. Several weeks of well-publicized carping ensued.
In late January, Dobson, along with the Rev. Don Wildmon of the Mississippi-based American Family Association and the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, questioned Bush's top political adviser Karl Rove on whether the president would passionately support amending the Constitution. The New York Times reported that those leaders "put Mr. Rove on the spot" and that Rove responded by assuring the group that Bush was fully behind the amendment and that he was simply waiting for the right moment to let the public know.
That moment finally occurred on Feb. 23, when Bush announced his support for the Religious Right's cause in a five-minute statement given in the White House's Roosevelt Room.
"The union of a man and woman is the most enduring human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith.... Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society," Bush asserted.
According to his press secretary, Scott McClellan, Bush was throwing his support behind the Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposal by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.).
Musgrave's bill, H.J. Res. 56, states: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups." (Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican, has introduced an identical measure S.J. Res. 26 in the Senate.)
The president's announcement gratified a restive Religious Right base eager to use the marriage issue to sway its supporters to Bush's side on Election Day. Leaders of the movement had insisted that the president needed to act to shore up his standing among evangelicals.
Robert H. Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America (CWA), told The Washington Times before the Bush announcement that the 2004 Bush-Cheney ticket would be in peril if things played out like they did in 2000 "when an estimated 6 million fewer evangelical Christians voted...."
CWA President Sandy Rios echoed Knight's concerns, telling the newspaper that the Bush re-election team "can't possibly guarantee a large turnout of evangelical Christian voters if he [Bush] does not do what is morally right and take leadership on this issue...."
Even a cursory examination of Bush's Oval Office record reveals a president very committed to his Religious Right base. The president's right-wing judicial appointments, his signing of a bill banning so-called "partial-birth abortion" and his "faith-based" initiative have pleased, and for a long time appeased, his base.
But with a few American cities recognizing gay marriages, numerous state legislatures debating the issue and a presidential election under way, Religious Right leaders insisted on the president's help so they can use the marriage controversy as their top issue to fuel their fund-raising efforts and energize their troops.
Following Bush's announcement of support, more than 80 Religious Right leaders signed a letter thanking the president for joining their anti-gay marriage cause. The missive was published in full-page advertisements in The New York Times and other newspapers. Signers pledged to "do everything in our power to inform and to educate our constituents about the importance and urgency of this issue both for the preservation of the family in America as well as the right ordering of our government."
Land, president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the marriage issue is the way to get the Religious Right pumped for the approaching presidential election.
Land, whose denomination claims 16 million members, told The New York Times that, "I have never seen anything that has energized and provoked our grass roots like this issue, including Roe v. Wade [the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion]."
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told The Times that Bush's "stepping forward" to support the marriage amendment "will energize people in a very powerful way."
Religious Right allies in Congress will also employ the marriage issue in driving their supporters into the Bush camp.
In a mass mailing to clergy in his congressional district, U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) suggested Bush's endorsement of the marriage amendment would be useful "as you prepare worship messages for your congregation." The mailing, paid for with tax dollars, included a transcript of Bush's speech and a Wall Street Journal column by Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon against same-sex marriage.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, in discussions with reporters about the ramifications of amending the Constitution, criticized the tightness between the Bush team and Religious Right organizations.
"I'm not worried about gay marriage," said Lynn. "I am, however, very worried about the marriage between President Bush and Religious Right zealots. Our Constitution has never been amended to take away minority rights, and we should not be taking such an action now."
Gay marriage, or the prospect of it being recognized in America, triggers emotional responses based on a few criteria other than religious beliefs, such as tradition. But the issue, at its heart, raises serious church-state concerns. Conservative Christian political activists want only their version of marriage recognized in the United States, despite the First Amendment principle that says government should not endorse or advance a religious cause. A religion-based advocacy group, called the Alliance for Marriage, has been leading the drive for an amendment. (See "Marriage Proposal," October 2003 Church & State.)
Some of the most strident rhetoric in the dispute has emanated from religious voices. For example, a group of black Baptist ministers conducted a press conference to laud Bush's endorsement of the marriage amendment. The event's organizer, the Rev. Gregory Daniels, declared that, "If the K.K.K. opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them."
Religious voices also dominated a Senate panel's hearing on the controversy. Witnesses called by the Republican majority included two ministers and Maggie Gallagher, an ultraconservative columnist and darling of the Religious Right.
In addition to Washington, battles over this high-pitched culture war issue are taking place in numerous states, and the Religious Right has assumed a leading role.
In Maine, a group called the Christian Civic League led an unsuccessful and rather nasty campaign for a state constitutional ban on gay marriage. League Executive Director Michael S. Heath argued in the Portland Herald Press that state residents must "lift our heads above the low hanging mind-numbing moral haze that Satan's smoke machine is pumping out" and "take in a breath of fresh air."
If only Maine residents could shake Satan's hold, the day would be won and married heterosexuals in Maine could finally rest, knowing their marriages could not be destroyed by gay marriages recognized outside the state's boundaries, as Heath saw it. He concluded his battle cry with the assessment that the "future of our country is in the hands of our pastors and priests. Unfortunately the tendrils of sexual corruption have slithered noticed into their ranks. The battle for the soul of our civilization is going to be fought by forgiven sinners."
Shortly after both houses of the Maine legislature defeated the bill proposing a constitutional anti-gay marriage amendment, Heath had posted on his group's website (www.cclmaine.org) something called the "Orientation Appeal." The message proclaimed that "it is only appropriate that all of us here in Maine understand the 'sexual orientation' of our leaders" and in particular of those leaders "who want to overturn marriage." Heath's "Orientation Appeal," ended with the plea to readers to e-mail the group "tips, rumors, speculation and facts" regarding the sexual lives of state lawmakers.
While marriage amendment advocates sometimes use secular arguments, the religious character of the drive is usually apparent.
Joel Belz, publisher of World, the nation's leading evangelical news magazine, wrote recently, "There is, in the end, only one sound defense of heterosexual marriage. The only ultimate argument is that restricting marriage to one man and woman is part of God's creation order, the pattern He planned for the good and the glory of the human race."
"We may not like to admit it, but when you leave God's design out of the argument, there's really no overwhelming reason any longer to limit marriage to a man and a woman," added Belz in a Feb. 28 column.
The Roman Catholic hierarchy has often joined with the Religious Right to push for marriage amendments. In New York in early March, Cardinal Edward Egan and other senior clerics descended on Albany to tell Gov. George Pataki and top state lawmakers that in no way should the state allow or recognize same-sex marriages.
In Massachusetts, where the Supreme Judicial Court has declared that denying marriage to same-sex couples violates the state constitution, the Catholic hierarchy has also played an important role, urging its parishioners to lobby for a constitutional amendment.
Religious Right forces, meanwhile, are led by Ron Crews, a former Army Chaplain and director of the Massachusetts Family Institute. According to the Associated Press, Crews, a Presbyterian minister, is targeting the separation of church and state.
"I feel strongly that the church has a proper role to play in state policy," Crews told the AP. "The whole so-called wall of separation is to keep the state out of the church and not to keep the church out of the state."
Americans United jumped into the marriage debate early in the year, when it sent Congress a letter opposing a constitutional amendment. AU noted that religious liberty would be severely harmed by writing the view of marriage favored by certain religious groups into constitutional law for all to follow.
AU's letter to Congress also countered the notion proffered by Religious Right activists that a constitutional amendment is necessary to ensure that churches are not forced to recognize gay marriage. The religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment bar "any court or legislature from requiring any religious institution or person to perform marriage ceremonies for anyone," states AU's Feb. 5 letter to the Senate and House.
During the Senate subcommittee hearing in March, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) also raised church-state concerns.
"I welcome the reverend clergy who are here today who have expressed based on their religious values why they believe we should not sanctify marriage of the same gender and same sex," said Durbin. "I respect your religious belief.... But if we are going to adopt the premise that religious values that in their own faith support the institution of marriage should be enshrined in the Constitution, then I think we are moving into perilous territory."
Addressing the witnesses, Durbin added, "When religious groups come to us and say...we believe so strongly in our religious beliefs we want them in our Constitution and law of the land to apply to everyone, that's where I think we get in dangerous territory. We go beyond the question of legality into sanctity. Sanctity is your business, reverend. Legality is our business. And we better take care to make sure that we keep that bright line between the two."
However, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a staunch supporter of preserving the "sanctity of marriage," said the Senate would vote sometime this year on an amendment.
The drive for the marriage amendment may stall, thanks to a split among conservatives on what wording to use. Some Religious Right groups are satisfied with outlawing same-sex marriage, but others want to ban civil unions as well.
The Christian Coalition issued a press release in early March warning that "two normally conservative members of Congress" were about to introduce an amendment that would be even weaker than Rep. Musgrave's.
"We do not need Members of Congress dividing the pro-family movement," Roberta Combs, the group's president, asserted.
In the many weeks yet before Election Day, the Religious Right will be raising lots more money and fueling lots more anger over the marriage issue.
AU's Lynn said the Religious Right's reactions to the marriage issue have been "shrill and over-the-top."
"There is nothing radical about preserving individual liberty and demanding equal protection for all," Lynn said, before urging defeat of the marriage amendment.