Religious Right leaders have vowed to make support for an anti-gay marriage amendment a litmus test for all candidates in the 2004 elections.
The organizations were outraged when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld gay marriage in a 4-3 ruling Nov. 18. In its decision, the court majority ruled that under the Massachusetts Constitution, gay couples should have an equal right to legal marriage. The court noted that religious groups differ on the question of gay marriage and pointed out that the court must decide the issue solely on the basis of the state's governing charter.
"Many people hold deep-seated religious, moral, and ethical convictions that marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman, and that homosexual conduct is immoral," wrote the court majority. "Many hold equally strong religious, moral, and ethical convictions that same-sex couples are entitled to be married, and that homosexual persons should be treated no differently than their heterosexual neighbors. Neither view answers the question before us. Our concern is with the Massachusetts Constitution as a charter of governance for every person properly within its reach."
Angry Religious Right leaders wasted no time denouncing the ruling as a threat to heterosexual marriage and American values. They also promised to seek an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. Several Religious Right leaders said the issue would define the 2004 elections for them.
"Politicians don't want to face it, but they're going to have to," said Sandy Rios of Concerned Women for America (CWA).
In an interview with The New York Times, Rios added, "We fully intend to use this as a litmus test for offices from president to street sweeper."
She singled out President George W. Bush for special pressure, saying that if Bush fails to back an amendment, many conservative Christians will skip voting on Election Day.
"We would see people staying home in droves if he does not show strength on this," she said.
After the ruling, Bush said he believes marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples, but he has not yet backed a constitutional amendment. Complicating matters is that different versions of an amendment have been circulated. One bans only gay marriage, while another would also ban civil unions and any efforts by state and local governments to extend legal protections to gay or heterosexual couples that chose not to marry.
Most Religious Right groups favor the hard-line approach that would also ban civil unions. These organizations have been meeting in a type of war council through an umbrella group called the Arlington Group, after the Washington, D.C., suburb where it first met. Participants include CWA, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, William Bennett's Empower America, the Free Congress Foundation and Gary Bauer's group, American Values.
The day of the Massachusetts court ruling, Americans United issued a statement saying that the decision showed respect for the boundary between religion and government. In Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the court pointed out that historically, civil marriage in Massachusetts has been a "wholly secular institution," noting that, "No religious ceremony has ever been required to validate a Massachusetts marriage."
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the Massachusetts court was right to make its ruling on constitutional, not religious, grounds.
"The court majority explained that this decision is based on constitutional principles, not religious dogma," said Lynn. "In a nation that separates religion and government, that's a vital distinction.
"This decision deals only with civil marriage, not religious marriage," he continued. "It's important for Americans to understand that under this ruling all houses of worship retain the right to marry or not marry same-sex couples in keeping with their faith traditions. Religious Right groups will no doubt try to spread hysteria about the decision, and I hope the American people firmly reject their overheated appeals to intolerance and divisiveness."