WASHINGTON -- Using pulpits, petitions, and political action committees, conservative activists are mobilizing a grass-roots political movement against gay marriage that they say is more intense and urgent than their campaigns against abortion.
The activists say their aims are to enact a federal constitutional amendment sanctioning only heterosexual marriage and to make 2004 candidates from the White House to state house take a stand against same-sex unions and gay rights.
Alarmed by the US Supreme Court's June decision striking down Texas's anti-sodomy law, prominent religious and social conservatives say they are redirecting resources from the antiabortion movement and the school voucher fight to a new effort to stop the expansion of gay rights. They are using websites, e-mail, and direct mail to seek donations and warn, as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson did in a newsletter this month, that "the homosexual activist movement . . . is poised to administer a devastating and potentially fatal blow to the traditional family."
In August, the Rev. Jerry Falwell announced he was putting his full efforts toward a "one man-one woman" marriage amendment, and Tony Perkins, the new president of the Family Research Council, said he is shifting the group's focus squarely to the threat to marriage. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention, with 16.2 million members, in June passed a resolution condemning same-sex unions, and the leadership of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Sept. 10 gave its support to a constitutional amendment that would ban them.
David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, a group that advocates gay and lesbian rights, said this level of opposition is unprecedented. Social conservatives agree that same-sex marriage has reenergized a movement that had fallen on hard times financially and had no single, compelling message. "There was a little bit of burnout, but there has been a spontaneous reaction to this issue, in both its intensity and the numbers involved, that has surprised all the conservative public-policy groups," said Gary Bauer, a 2000 Republican presidential candidate who heads the organization American Values.
This week, Bauer and other founders of the Arlington Group, a coalition of 21 evangelical Christian and other conservative organizations, will meet outside Washington for the third time since July and declare Oct. 12 to 18 as Marriage Promotion Week. They plan a national outreach by churches and Christian broadcasters to preach against gay marriage, aim to collect 1 million signatures for amending the US Constitution, raise money, and tell their flocks to lobby lawmakers to defend traditional family values.
"If we wait 30 years, it's all over," said the Rev. Don Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., chairman of the American Family Association, which has a network of more than 200 Christian radio stations and affiliates. Wildmon organized the first Arlington Group meeting, he said, because religious conservatives learned a lesson from mobilizing too slowly after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. "This is an issue that is going to be met now, because the danger is now."
Sparking this mobilization was Justice Antonin Scalia's warning, made in his dissent in the Supreme Court sodomy case, that extending privacy rights to gay relationships would inevitably lead to same-sex marriage. But what's giving real momentum to the proposed constitutional ban, conservatives say, is their fear that Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court will rule in the pending case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that same-sex couples have a legal right to wed in the Commonwealth.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, predicts if Massachusetts becomes the first state to allow gay marriage, the federal Defense of Marriage law and those of 37 states will crumble under legal challenges. These laws, enacted in the aftermath of Vermont's passage of a civil union law in 2000, are designed to prevent other jurisdictions from recognizing same-sex unions. "The only way to keep it from happening is to build a firewall," said Land, whose agency is actively supporting the resolution in the US House, introduced in May by Republican Representative Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, to amend the Constitution to define marriage as a union of a woman and man.
Last week, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, said for the first time that a federal marriage amendment may be "addressed in some form or fashion" in the GOP's 2004 platform, and he indicated that White House and Republican Party officials now are assessing the possible impact of a decision by the Massachusetts court. Gillespie asserted that gay advocates are practicing "religious bigotry" and "intolerance" by demanding Americans condone same-sex marriage.
President Bush has not endorsed the proposed amendment, but said in July that "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. And I think we ought to codify that one way or the other."
Gillespie's remarks drew a quick rebuke from Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group, who said "the last thing the GOP needs" is to fight a culture war when it should be expanding the party. The Human Rights Campaign's Smith accused Gillespie of "making a cold, hard political calculation" to pander to religious conservatives.
"They are entering very dangerous territory . . . when they try to create a demon out of gay families," Smith said.
Political analysts say candidates could find some traction in the gay marriage issue because public opposition has grown dramatically in the months following the Supreme Court ruling, legalization of gay marriage by courts in two Canadian provinces, and the Episcopal Church's confirmation of its first openly gay bishop. In May, 49 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll said gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions. In a Washington Post poll in August, only 37 percent did.
Gay marriage could emerge as an important wedge issue that Republicans could use in 2004 to woo traditional Democrats, particularly Roman Catholics. "I can write Bush's commercials right now, attacking Howard Dean for signing the civil-union bill," said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron and a specialist in voting trends of religious groups.
After a Vermont Supreme Court decision in 1999, the state Legislature passed a law granting same-sex couples the right to form legal unions and gain domestic benefits. Dean, then the state's Democratic governor, signed the law. As a presidential candidate, Dean has not endorsed gay marriage. The Democratic candidates who have are Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton.
All 10 Democratic presidential candidates say they support domestic benefits for gay and lesbian couples and oppose the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment. So far, the measure has 90 cosponsors in the House. Earlier this month, it was endorsed by an ethnically diverse coalition of religious leaders and legal scholars who joined the Alliance for Marriage, a group that drafted the amendment several years ago.
The measure has not been introduced in the Senate, where backers, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, have indicated they will wait for Massachusetts' high court to rule. In an ABC News poll last week, 60 percent of Americans said it is "not worth" amending the Constitution to bar same-sex marriage.
Still, leaders of the Arlington Group say they will press every candidate for national and state office to pledge their support for the amendment, which must be approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate and ratified by three-fourths of the states. Those with political action committees say they want to provide financial backing to pro-amendment candidates and produce issue ads in 2004, but Michael Bowman, who raises money for conservative causes, says it is too early to gauge whether gay marriage will be a fund-raising "golden cow."
"The homosexual community is chortling that a majority of the people are against the Federal Marriage Amendment, and it won't pass," said Paul Weyrich, chairman of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. "Well, that's very nice, but we haven't begun to fight."