WASHINGTON — Calling marriage between men and women “the ideal,” President Bush on Friday defended his decision to seek a constitutional amendment outlawing gay weddings.
“I believed it was important to act because the institution of marriage was being changed by the courts,” Bush said during a White House appearance with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. “It’s an issue that’s very sensitive, and the voice of the people needed to be heard. And the constitutional process was the best way to do such.”
Bush, who has come under fire since he endorsed the constitutional amendment on Tuesday, repeatedly called the debate over same-sex marriage “sensitive” and “difficult,” and called on all sides in the debate to “hold true without condemning anybody else.”
Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” in 2000, and is trying anew to bridge the divide between his conservative base and critical swing voters. Some advisers fear any hint of intolerance would alienate middle-of-the-road Americans.
Gospel passage invoked in July
Last July, when asked about the issue, Bush invoked a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “I am mindful that we’re all sinners, and I caution those who may try to take the speck out of the neighbor’s eye when they’ve got a log in their own.”
But Bush stuck by his decision to seek the constitutional amendment.
“I believe marriage has served society well, and I believe it is important to affirm that — that marriage between a man and a woman is the ideal,” Bush said. “And the job of the president is to drive policy toward the ideal.”
Bush, in an exchange with reporters during a picture-taking session in the Oval Office with Schroeder, sidestepped questions about exactly what scenario he foresaw — if gay marriages like the ones taking place in San Francisco were to continue.
He also did not answer a question about criticism that civil rights activists and others have raised against the proposed amendment.
As he made his remarks, Bush looked repeatedly at Schroeder, who said nothing.
Germany enacted some gay rights, but not marriage
Under a 2001 law pushed through by Schroeder’s center-left government, gay couples got substantial new rights. They can seal their partnership at local government offices and require a court decision for divorce, and they also got rights given to heterosexual spouses in areas such as inheritance and health insurance.
It stops short of marriage and withholds some other rights that heterosexual couples have.
Bush spoke on a day when another front opened in the gay marriage debate. About a dozen gay couples began exchanging wedding vows on the steps of New Paltz, N.Y. village hall.
The president’s call for a constitutional amendment came under sharp criticism Tuesday night from Democratic presidential candidates Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards.
Both candidates reiterated their opposition to gay marriage during a California debate, but they also said the issue should be left up to the states to decide.
“He’s doing this because he’s in (political) trouble. ... He’s playing politics with the Constitution of the United States,” said Kerry, the front-runner for the nomination.
‘A problem that does not exist’
“This president is talking ... about amending the constitution for a problem that does not exist,” Edwards said.
Directly contradicting a claim made by Bush, Kerry also said the Constitution does not require states to recognize gay marriage licenses granted elsewhere in the country.
“I think, in fact, that no state has to recognize something that is against their public policy,” he said. And for two centuries, “we have left marriage up to the states.”
Other Democrats also have pounded Bush on an issue they see as a potential weakness in November.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said this week that “this nation has made too much progress in the ongoing battle for civil rights to take such an unjustified step backwards now.”
MSNBC.com's Mike Brunker, MSNBC.com's Tom Curry, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.