Gay Marriage May Be Religious Right's 'Wedge' Issue In 2004 Elections

Religious Right groups, eager to find a divisive social issue to exploit during the 2004 elections, believe the Supreme Court has handed them one: gay marriage.

Several groups are urging President George W. Bush to step up his opposition to gay marriage to motivate Religious Right activists in 2004. Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law banning homosexual sodomy between consenting adults. Although the case had nothing to do with gay marriage, Religious Right leaders insist that the ruling opens the door to government recognition of gay unions.

Several Religious Right groups are working with members of Congress to promote a constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to heterosexuals. (See "Marriage Proposal," October 2003 Church & State.) Bush has not officially endorsed the amendment, but he did say he believes marriage should be limited to unions between men and women.

In mid September, three U.S. senators joined clergy for a Washington press conference advocating the amendment.

"In my view, it is incontestable that marriage is a valuable thing," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). "The formal definition of marriage as we've understood it for so many years is the union of a man and a woman in holy matrimony."

Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) also attended the event. Also present were representatives of various conservative religious bodies, including Rabbi Abba Cohen of Agudath Israel of America and Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America.

Bush has also taken symbolic steps to show his support for the Religious Right. In early October he issued a proclamation declaring Oct. 12-18 "Marriage Protection Week." The proclamation, heavily backed by Religious Right groups, states that marriage "is a sacred institution, and its protection is essential to the continued strength of our society."

Meanwhile, Republican strategists are urging candidates to use the gay marriage issue to shore up their campaigns. Last May, GOP pollster Richard Wirthlin called the marriage amendment "an ideal wedge issue" in a memo distributed to party operatives.

Wirthlin said the issue "does not alienate the base" and may attract African-American voters to the GOP.

"In sum," concludes the memo, "it is an issue that if handled properly can work very much to the advantage of Republican candidates, if it gains some visibility prior to the 2004 election."

In early October, a wide array of Religious Right and other right-wing leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., to plot strategy on the issue. According to World magazine publisher Joel Belz, the session drew everyone from Jerry Falwell and Michael Farris to Paul Weyrich and Bill Bennett. Repredsentatives attended from Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention, Eagle Forum, Family Redsearch Council, National Religious Broaddcasters, Empower America, American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Home School Legal Defense Association and American Family Association.

The group agreed to press for a sweeping constitutional amendment that will ban not only gay marriage, but also civil unions in any form.

"Our people," said Farris, "simply won't be rallied by a lesser effort."