Gay Marriage Issue Tests Bush’s Claims to Be ‘Compassionate’

Posted August 1, 2003 at 2:33pm

If President Bush wants to be a true “compassionate conservative,” he’ll support civil unions for homosexual couples and try to avoid using gay marriage as a “wedge issue” in the 2004 presidential campaign. [IMGCAP(1)]

Civil unions — granting gay couples the legal rights of marriage while avoiding use of the term — clearly are a compassionate way for society to treat homosexuals.

They would correct the injustice that gay couples, even those in long-term committed relationships, are denied rights that married heterosexuals have, including the ability to make emergency medical decisions for their partners, take leave from work in case of illness and receive Social Security and health insurance benefits.

Conservatives concerned that civil unions will somehow “encourage” homosexuality need to consider that civil unions actually will encourage commitment and fidelity, virtues that conservatives respect.

Moreover, granting of benefits is not going to cause anyone to choose a gay orientation. There will be no gay “advantage.”

And, in any event, conservatives by this time should realize that liberalization of American culture toward homosexuality has not caused a great surge in the incidence of gayness, which studies show is about 5 percent of the population.

Bush tried again last week to juggle his compassionate and conservative instincts about gayness — and his desire to appeal to moderate and right-wing voters — but the White House has no answers to what his views may be on civil unions.

In the past, Bush has infuriated right-wing groups by declining to have his Justice Department intervene in the Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, that recently struck down anti-sodomy laws and by permitting Republican Party officials to meet with gay groups.

Ed Gillespie, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, said at a luncheon with Roll Call reporters and editors that he had not been asked for a meeting by any gay groups and would not decide what to do until he has been.

Bush, in his press conference last week, clearly triggered by post-Lawrence discussion of gay marriage, said, “I think it’s very important for our society to respect each individual, to welcome those with good hearts, to be a welcoming country.”

He implied that he considers homosexual activity to be sinful, as many conservative Christians do, but added “we’re all sinners” and cited Scriptural cautions against making judgments of other peoples’ conduct.

At the same time, he said that he would not “compromise” on the issue of marriage. “Marriage is between a man and a woman and I think we ought to codify that one way or another.” He said, “We’ve got lawyers looking at the best way to do that.”

Bush wasn’t asked about civil unions — the institution signed into law by Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean as Vermont governor and endorsed by other Democrats — and his press secretary provided no clarity when he was asked about the matter.

Bush also stopped short of endorsing a proposed constitutional amendment declaring marriage as male-female unions and forbidding the courts to grant the legal rights of marriage to gay couples.

Advocates of the amendment, which has been endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), say it would not forbid Congress or state legislatures from granting civil union-like rights to gays.

Bush and most other actors on the gay rights issue are awaiting the outcome of a Massachusetts Supreme Court case that may declare gay marriages to be legal.

The federal government and 38 states have “defense of marriage” laws on the books declaring that they have no obligation to recognize gay marriages, but such DOMA laws might be declared unconstitutional — after years of court battles — because the Constitution commands states to extend “full faith and credit” to the laws of other states.

Gay rights groups fear — and religious conservative groups hope — that the amendment would fly through both chambers if the Massachusetts court legalizes gay marriage, much as DOMA did in 1996 — adopted 85-14 in the Senate and 342-67 in the House, well over the two-thirds needed to approve an amendment.

Bush could avoid making gay rights a 2004 “wedge” issue by declining to endorse the amendment, leaving it up to Congress and the states to decide whether to ratify it and allowing the courts time to decide whether DOMA is constitutional.

Such a stance surely would enrage his religious conservative base, although he could rightfully claim that DOMA — recognizing marriage as strictly a male-female institution — remains the law of the land unless struck down by the courts.

If Bush were to yield to conservative pressure and endorse the amendment, Democratic candidates probably would oppose it — even though only three out of the nine of them favor gay marriage, as opposed to civil unions — and it could be a major, and ugly, 2004 campaign issue. The situation is complicated by the unwillingness of either side of the matter — most gay rights groups and conservatives — to consider any compromise.

Most gay groups demand at least an institution called “civil marriage,” which they say would put them on an equal footing with heterosexuals and yet not impinge on the ability of churches to set their own standards for marriage.

Conservatives consider any yielding on gay unions to be a threat to the institution of marriage, which they regard as sanctioned by religion. The Roman Catholic Church’s declaration that gay unions are “immoral” underscores the point.

It will be hard for Bush to cool this issue down. The press loves it. People feel strongly about it. But polls suggest that the public, while opposing gay marriage, favors civil unions. That would be a good place for Bush to stand.