updated 6/22/2004 11:29:17 AM ET 2004-06-22T15:29:17

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose state is the only one to recognize gay marriages, on Tuesday urged passage of a constitutional amendment banning same sex unions, even as a conservative lawmaker said a federal law denying recognition to such marriages was sufficient.

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Senate backers of the ban have predicted that gay marriages will spread like a “wildfire” across the country, eroding traditional marriage and voiding more restrictive laws in other states.

“It is not possible for the issue to remain solely a Massachusetts issue, it must now be confronted on a national basis,” Romney said.

But in a preview of what is certain to be a politically charged debate, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the Constitution shouldn’t be used as a vehicle for banning homosexual marriage.

“We meddle with the Constitution to our own peril,” Barr said. “If we begin to treat the Constitution as our personal sandbox, in which to build and destroy castles as we please, we risk diluting the grandeur of having a constitution in the first place.”

In contrast, Romney, who has had to grapple with his state’s first-in-the-nation court ruling giving gays the right to wed, said that at the heart of democracy is the principle that the people — not the courts — should decide such fundamental issues.

“The real threat to the states is not the constitutional amendment process, in which the states participate, but activist judges who disregard the law and redefine marriage in order to impose their will on the states, and on the whole nation,” the governor said.

As the Senate prepares to vote next month on the proposed constitutional amendment, the hearing suggested that some of the strongest opposition to the proposed amendment coming from conservatives who abhor gay unions.

Defense of Marriage author's view
Barr, author of the Defense of Marriage Act denying federal recognition to gay unions, said in prepared testimony that conservatives should resist the temptation to use the Constitution to strangle states’ rights. He said the Defense of Marriage Act was sufficient to deny recognition to homosexual marriage, and noted that it has yet to be successfully challenged.

Romney conceded that while “the sky’s not going to fall” if gay unions are recognized, same sex marriage “may affect the development of children and thereby future society as a whole. Until we understand the implications for human development of a different definition of marriage, I believe we should preserve that which has endured over thousands of years.”

The issue has flared since last November when the Massachusetts high court ruled that prohibiting gay couples from marrying violates the state’s constitution. The Massachusetts legislature voted in March to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriages but to legalize civil unions.

In February, President Bush endorsed amending the U.S. Constitution to recognize marriages only between a man and a woman. With more than two years to go before state voters pass judgment on the proposed amendment, Romney and others have urged Congress to act on Bush’s call.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said senators will begin debate July 12 on an amendment proposed by Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.

That amendment states that “marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any state, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.”

Amendments to the Constitution require approval by two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.

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