WASHINGTON—For the second time in three days, President Bush implored the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, saying Monday that the issue needs to be wrestled away from "overreaching judges" and placed in the hands of the American people.
Critics on both sides of the debate accused the president of playing politics with the socially sensitive issue by seeking to rouse social conservatives to support Republicans in this congressional election year even if the cause has no realistic hope of enactment. Bush's talk came as the Senate continued debate on a measure that isn't likely to win the two-thirds majority vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives that the Constitution requires.
"Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization and it should not be redefined by activist judges," Bush said following a meeting with amendment supporters in the White House. "Our policies should aim to strengthen families, not undermine them. And our changing the definition of marriage would undermine the family structure."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the White House is using the gay marriage issue to try to divert attention from the war in Iraq, high gasoline prices and other issues that aren't going the administration's way.
"This is another one of the president's efforts to frighten, to distort, to distract and to confuse America," Reid said. "It is this administration's way of avoiding the tough, real problems that American citizens are confronted with each and every day."
The Log Cabin Republicans, a Republican gay and lesbian organization, called the amendment a "politically motivated" effort to "write discrimination into the U.S. Constitution."
"The president's call for `tolerance and civility' while advocating discrimination rings hollow," Log Cabin President Patrick Guerriero said in a written statement.
Bush told conservative religious leaders, educators and social activists that he's supporting the Marriage Protection Amendment in the Senate because traditional marriage—between a man and a woman—is under fire.
"This national question requires a national solution," he said. "An amendment to the Constitution is necessary because activist courts have left our nation with no other choice. When activist judges insist on imposing their arbitrary will on the people, the only alternative left to the people is an amendment to the Constitution, the only law a court cannot overturn."
The Senate measure states: "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 legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."
Sponsors of the amendment say it gives room for state legislatures to approve civil unions for same-sex couples.
Bush's unequivocal support of the act impressed some in his audience who have questioned his commitment to conservative causes.
"I was very pleased with what the president said," said James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization. "I would prefer the amendment prohibit civil unions, but we will take what he can get."
Paul Weyrich, chairman of the conservative Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, was less impressed.
"He is not serious about the amendment," Weyrich said. "He's reluctantly gotten back in the fight, but he doesn't like it. The rhetoric is fine, but to get anywhere he's got to twist arms and he's not doing it. You know the U.S. Senate—they won't do anything unless extraordinary pressure is put on them."
The amendment faces daunting odds in the Senate. Only one of the 44 Senate Democrats—Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska—has expressed support for the measure. Support among the Senate's handful of moderates among 55 Republicans is scant. The Senate's lone independent, James Jeffords of Vermont, tends to vote with Democrats.
The Constitution requires approval by two-thirds of both the House and Senate to forward a constitutional amendment to the states, and three-quarters of state legislatures also must approve it to change the nation's fundamental legal charter.
Bush said the Senate proposal reflects the will of Americans who "have spoken clearly on this issue" through state referendums and the 1996 passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, which then-President Clinton signed.
But a recent Gallup Poll shows that issues such as same-sex marriage are a low priority for most Americans at this time. In the poll, conducted last month, 42 percent of Americans said Iraq should be the top priority for the president and Congress, while only 1 percent said ethics/moral, religious/family decline issues should top their agenda.
(James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
(EDITORS: The survey mentioned in the last graf was conducted May 22-24 with 1,003 adult respondents ages 18 and older. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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