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GOP sees '04 issue in gay marriage

WASHINGTON -- Republican strategists are planning to make gay marriage an issue in the 2004 political race if the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rules that same-sex couples can legally wed in the Commonwealth, a decision as eagerly awaited in the capital as in the Bay State.

The court could make Massachusetts the first state to allow gay and lesbian marriages -- which other states eventually might have to honor, opponents say.

Under pressure from social conservatives who want President Bush to campaign against gay marriage in 2004, GOP officials say they are studying battleground states where same-sex unions could be a wedge issue in national and state races, and they are weighing endorsement of a proposed federal constitutional amendment sanctioning only heterosexual marriage.

At the same time, conservative groups are raising money to spend on campaigns next year, assembling volunteers to press candidates to oppose gay marriage, and organizing petition drives and ballot initiatives in favor of the constitutional amendment.

President Bush has not endorsed the proposed amendment, but he 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 another." Gay marriage could be tricky terrain for the White House, torn between the president's important base of religious conservatives and suburban swing voters who are more tolerant of gay rights. "I hope this will not be a major thing in the campaign," a senior White House official said.

Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has told several groups that GOP lawyers are assessing how a Massachusetts court ruling in favor of gay marriage would affect other states and the federal government. He expects the party to take a position on the constitutional amendment after a decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.

"My sense is that all these things are being considered and weighed and will be brought to a decision point, when and if the Massachusetts Supreme Court rules," Gillespie recently told reporters. He added that "it wouldn't surprise me" if the Republican Party platform addressed gay marriage "in some form or fashion."

In a report released in July, the Senate's Republican Policy Committee concluded that armed with a favorable ruling in Massachusetts, "homosexual-friendly lawyers" will sue and succeed in striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman and gives states the right to refuse to recognize gay marriages performed in other states. In addition, 37 states have laws that allow them to deny the legal and financial benefits of marriage to gay couples.

On March 4, justices of the state's highest court heard arguments in the Goodridge case, which was brought by seven same-sex couples who sued the state Department of Public Health for denying them marriage licenses. The high-profile decision could come any day, SJC spokeswoman Charlotte Whiting said Tuesday.

The closely watched case is energizing both defenders and opponents of gay rights. Yesterday in Boston, gay rights activists, along with plaintiffs in the Goodridge case, launched a national campaign highlighting how same-sex couples in long-term relationships without marriage licenses are denied legal protections and medical and pension benefits. A full-page ad in the Globe yesterday depicted two women and asked, "Why Are `Pro-Family' Groups Attacking This Devoted Couple?"

"I'm skeptical that Republicans can make this an issue, but I see the push for a constitutional amendment as a direct attack on the Massachusetts families in this case," said Mary Bonauto, a lawyer for the Goodridge plaintiffs and a spokeswoman for the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a sponsor of the ad campaign.

None of the leading Democratic candidates support gay marriage, but all are wooing gay and lesbian activists and young voters with promises to fight a constitutional amendment, endorse civil unions, and expand domestic benefits to same-sex couples. At Tuesday night's "Rock the Vote" debate at Faneuil Hall, Howard Dean pointed out that as Vermont's governor he signed the nation's first same-sex union legislation, and retired Army General Wesley K. Clark said that he supports the right of gays to serve in the military and that as president he would review the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. A recent ABC News poll found that 51 percent of respondents under 35 support same-sex marriage, but a majority overall -- 55 percent -- said they do not. As a group, women are more supportive than men of gay rights, but are more opposed to gay marriage, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. A ruling for gay marriage in Massachusetts could create a political backlash that Republicans might try to direct against Dean or John F. Kerry, one of 14 Senate Democrats who voted against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, Lake said.

The fact that it could happen in a court in Massachusetts -- tagged by some Republican leaders as a liberal outpost -- raises the temperature around the issue to the boiling point, said Patrick C. Guerriero, a former state lawmaker and Melrose mayor who now heads the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that promotes gay rights in the party.

"While polls may indicate it would be a smart move to use gay marriage as a wedge issue . . . what we learned in 1992 is that allowing conservatives like Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson to push their creepy social agenda will only hurt Republicans," Guerriero said. But Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, said social conservative groups like hers are "absolutely determined" to make opposition to same-sex marriage and the support of a constitutional ban a "litmus test" for candidates in 2004. She criticized Republicans for being slow to politicize the issue and called on Bush to stand up to "moral terrorists."

"Republicans aren't quite ready to take the plunge, so it is our job to push them off the cliff," said Rios, who predicts an SJC ruling allowing gay marriage could lead to "sexual chaos" and a breakdown in American family life.

Conservative activist Paul Weyrich said that White House officials have assured him the president will endorse the constitutional ban on gay marriage when a court decision is handed down. "There will be momentum -- it makes perfect sense politically," said Weyrich, who heads the Free Congress Foundation.

At the Nogaymarriage.com website, the conservative American Family Association is raising funds and has collected more than 728,000 signatures supporting the Federal Marriage Amendment. The website warns that "homosexual marriage will soon be a reality" because the Massachusetts high court "is expected" to rule in favor of the gay couples.

In New Jersey, a Superior Court judge Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by seven gay couples on grounds that the state constitution did not guarantee their right to marry. The judge urged the state legislature to expand legal rights to same-sex partners, while attorneys for the couples said they would appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Anticipating a similar SJC ruling, a group of Democrats in the Massachusetts House is trying to write a compromise bill that could greatly expand gay couples' rights and affirm civil unions, but not marriage, for them. But gay activists say marriages, not civil unions, are essential to guarantee same-sex couples equal rights.

The GOP's Gillespie seems intent to make legal acknowledgment of gay relationships an issue, even if Massachusetts stops short of granting marriage rights.

"I have a hard time distinguishing between civil unions and gay marriage," Gillespie said.

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