Congressional supporters of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage unveiled a change in their proposal Monday that they said would leave state legislatures with the unambiguous right to recognize civil unions. The deletion of five words, however, did nothing to lessen the opposition of Democratic critics of the proposed constitutional amendment. They responded by seeking an indefinite delay in a hearing set for Tuesday.
"This new language makes the intent of the legislation even clearer," said Colorado senator Wayne Allard, the amendment's leading advocate in the U.S. Senate. "To protect marriage in this country as the union between a man and a woman and to reinforce the authority of state legislatures to determine benefits issues related to civil unions or domestic partnerships."
In response, one gay rights advocate questioned Allard's contention about what the change would mean, and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee seized on the change to request a postponement in the second of two Senate hearings. Constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage have been introduced in the past in Congress without coming to a vote.
"This is an attempt to change the Constitution from a vessel for freedom to a tool of discrimination," said Cheryl Jacques, president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. "For more than 200 years, the Constitution has been amended to expand individual rights, not restrict them. No matter how you word it, this amendment discriminates against millions of Americans."
Said Dave Noble, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats: "The new language, like the old, would prevent any court from ruling that LGBT people have a right to be treated equally under the law. This new language is a murky attempt to appear more moderate in order to increase support for the amendment. However, amending the U.S. Constitution is never a moderate measure, and the new language would create as much damage as the old."
Allard and Colorado Republican representative Marilyn Musgrave, the leading supporter of the amendment in the House, outlined their change at a news conference. The previous proposal said that neither the United States nor any state constitution or any state or federal law "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." The revised proposal deletes the reference to state and federal laws.
In response, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said that the revision "actually brings it closer to the president's principles." Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for John Kerry, said the Massachusetts senator is opposed to a constitutional amendment. "He believes the president is using it as a wedge issue to divide the nation when more important things are facing the American people."
As a result of the change, Allard said, the revised proposal would allow state legislatures to decide whether to recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships. Legislatures also could decide whether same-sex relationships would qualify for benefits associated with marriage, he said. Other officials added that the measure would continue to bar state or federal courts from issuing rulings that declare those rights to be inherent in either the U.S. Constitution or state constitutions.
Republican strategists have said they are eager to require Senate Democrats--including Kerry, the Democratic Party's presidential nominee-in-waiting--to vote publicly on the issue. Kerry's home state has played a central role in the political drama on same-sex marriage in recent months with a ruling by the state's highest court that the Massachusetts constitution guarantees gay couples the right to marry.
In Congress, Republican officials say the Senate Judiciary Committee is on track to vote on the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the second half of April.