Image: President Bush responds to a reporter's question during a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House.
President Bush responds to a reporter's question during a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com

With a decision expected soon from Massachusetts judges that may legalize same-sex marriage, the possibility of legal status for gay marriage in other states and the recent Supreme Court decision on sodomy, President Bush appears ready to tap growing sentiment against gay marriage as a political issue. He’s joined by Congressional Republicans, who, along with a few conservative Democrats, are already poised to try to ban same-sex unions.

Bush addressed the issue Wednesday at his press conference.

While he said he was “mindful that we’re all sinners” and cautioned against condemning other people’s behavior, he added, “that does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on an issue such as marriage. And that’s really where the issue is heading here in Washington, and that is the definition of marriage.”

Meanwhile, the Vatican launched a global campaign against gay marriages Thursday, telling politicians who are members of the church that support of same-sex unions was “gravely immoral” and urging non-Catholics to join the offensive.

In Wednesday’s remarks, Bush said, “I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman. And I think we ought to codify that one way or the other.”

Bush also told reporters that administration lawyers are now “looking at the best way to do that.”

He did not mention a constitutional amendment, known as the Federal Marriage Amendment, which 76 members of the House, including six Democrats, are co-sponsoring.

“Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman,” the proposed amendment says.

The Senate Republican Policy Committee has already examined the issue, issuing a detailed memorandum to GOP senators Tuesday. The memo noted that gay rights activists are expecting the imminent Massachusetts decision to make marriage legal for same-sex couples in that state.

Then, the memo predicted, litigation will move ahead in other states to strike down their laws limiting marriage to heterosexuals.

Gay rights lawyers, the memo said, “have devised a strategy to override public opinion and force same-sex marriage on society through pliant, activist courts.”

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Reacting to Bush’s comments, the Human Right Campaign, the leading gay and lesbian advocacy group, said in a statement, “We are very disappointed that the president is trying to further codify discrimination into law.”

HRC Political Director Winnie Stachelberg pointed to the Defense of Marriage Act — signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 — which says states can refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

“We ask the president to explain to the American people why DOMA does not already meet the objective he set this morning,” said Stachelberg.

The courts could decide that DOMA violates Article IV of the Constitution, which says, “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.”

WILL CONGRESS ACT?

“It may be necessary for Congress to act and it would appear to me at this time the only thing that would be an appropriate response would be a constitutional amendment,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told MSNBC.com Wednesday.

He said, “If the American people want to state with clarity through the constitutional amendment process that marriage is between a man and a woman, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. As a matter of fact, it might be healthy.”

His own constituents, Sessions said, “believe that cultural elites are imposing an unprecedented secular mentality on American life, something unlike anything we’ve ever had in our nation’s history. Maybe this would be good ground to fight on.”

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee that issued the gay marriage memo Tuesday, was more conditional in his comments.

‘SOONER RATHER THAN LATER’

“If Congress wants to do something to re-affirm the traditional definition of marriage, it would probably need to act sooner rather than later, because if state supreme courts begin to rule the way it’s anticipated Massachusetts will rule, then obviously a lot of homosexual people may take advantage of that law in Massachusetts to get married,” Kyl said.

“That begins to have an effect as people travel to other states. ... It’s probably not a good idea to have a lot of uncertainty and allow it there for a long time.”

Kyl said the Policy Committee memo suggests that “if you want deal with it definitively that the Constitution is probably the only way you can do it, that otherwise there’s no way to affect the state courts’ decisions.”

Asked whether he supported the proposed constitutional amendment, Kyl replied, “We’re going to wait to see what Massachusetts Supreme Court does and then decide what course of action to take. But on its face, I think the Federal Marriage Amendment is very well-written and would be a good approach if the constitutional approach is the one Congress would take.”

The timing of any vote in the House or Senate on the amendment might figure in election year strategy.

In four Southern states — South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Arkansas — where social attitudes are generally conservative, there are Democratic-held Senate seats at stake next year. The four races are regarded as good opportunities for the Republicans. A vote against a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexuals might put a Democrat at odds with his constituents.

While gay marriage is not likely to eclipse the issues of economic growth or terrorism, it could tip the balance in close contests.

A new Gallup Poll shows that support for allowing gays to form legally recognized unions has fallen from 49 percent in May to 40 percent last week.

What happened after Gallup’s May survey was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down a Texas ban on homosexual sodomy.

The court’s decision did not in itself legalize gay marriage, but it provided arguments that could be used in future cases to support gay marriage.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the six-justice majority said sex between gay people can be “one element in a personal bond that is more enduring” than just sex.

Referring to marriage and child-rearing, Kennedy said, “Persons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for these purposes, just as heterosexual persons do.”

Gallup Poll editor-in-chief Frank Newport said “the new polling data suggest a backlash” in the wake of the Texas sodomy decision.

GOP WEDGE ISSUE?

Democratic consultant Jenny Backus said Republicans “have been desperately searching for their wedge issue for the next century.” She compared GOP strategists to “the witches in Macbeth,” trying “to brew up a false sense of crisis” over gay marriage.

Backus said the issue may be irrelevant to economically hard-pressed voters. “Swing voters have a lot more on their minds than wedge issues.”

And Republicans, she suggested, may be out of touch with Americans’ tolerance on gay rights. “The more ‘Will and Grace’ goes up in the ratings, the more they seem Neanderthal if they really push this (gay marriage ban).”

A Republican anti-gay marriage effort might end up hurting Bush, who Backus said, “has carefully tried to create a facade of moderation.”

The Democratic contenders generally support legal recognition of unions between gay and lesbian couples, although most of them do not support gay marriage.

In many of his speeches, former Vermont governor Howard Dean reminds his audiences that he signed the nation’s first civil unions law, which gives gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.

If elected president, Dean has vowed, he would “do everything in my power” to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

Among the other Democratic contenders, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri voted for DOMA, while Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry voted against it.

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