As a conservative Republican, Oregon senator Gordon Smith may seem an improbable hero for gays lesbians. But his efforts to give gays and lesbians protection under the federal hate-crimes law have been hailed from Portland, Ore. to Portland, Maine. Smith's support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, however, has put his credibility with gay rights activists on the line. Smith told the Associated Press he plans to vote in favor of the Republican proposal, which could come up for a vote in the Senate during the coming week. Smith, a Mormon, called the proposed amendment an important protection for traditional marriage. "While I am an advocate for many gay rights, I have always said that I am opposed to same-gender marriage," Smith said. "I believe marriage as has been practiced for thousands of years is a very important cultural ideal that however imperfectly practiced is worth preserving." Marriage "is about more than consenting adults," he said. "It's about the natural nurturing and rearing of children, and I think society has a very important stake in that issue."
Gay rights activists are dismayed that Smith would support the amendment, which they call an obvious effort to discriminate against gays and lesbians. They say they're puzzled he would do so on something so enduring as a constitutional amendment. "Senator Smith has a broad and deep record and commitment to gay and lesbian equality. That makes his vote for writing discrimination into the Constitution that much more troubling," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay political organization. The group endorsed Smith in 2002, but its support is at risk with the gay marriage vote, Stachelberg said. "This is one of the most fundamental votes the U.S. Senate will cast in a decade," she said. "We are very clear: We cannot support members of Congress who support this kind of discrimination."
Basic Rights Oregon, a Portland-based gay rights group, endorsed Smith's Democratic opponent two years ago, but has worked with him on the hate-crimes bill and other legislation. "It's a disappointment that on the one hand he would be a person who claims to support civil rights, yet he would write discrimination into the nation's most sacred document," said Roey Thorpe, the group's executive director. "It's great that Senator Smith believes no one should have to be afraid for their physical safety due to their sexual orientation. That's not the same as being able to live as an equally valued member of one's community," Thorpe said.
Opponents of gay marriage, meanwhile, say it's no surprise Smith is on their side. "Well, I know Senator Smith has always been a supporter of traditional marriage. He's never had to assure me of it, because we've always known that," said Tim Nashif, political director of the Defense of Marriage Coalition, a Portland-based group that collected more than 244,000 signatures to place a gay marriage ban on the Oregon ballot this fall. Nashif, chairman of the Multnomah County Republican Party, called gay marriage a separate issue from hate crimes and said Smith is well within the mainstream in Oregon and around the country in defending traditional marriage. "The left-wing gay activists would like everyone to believe it's some sort of discrimination" to ban same-sex marriage, Nashif said. "And yet really it is some extremists trying to advance their own agenda" by pushing for gay marriage.
Recent polling suggests that most Oregonians oppose same-sex marriage. One survey, conducted by Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts after Multnomah County's surprise decision to allow same-sex weddings, found that 54% did not think same-sex marriages should be legal. Thirty-five percent said the weddings should be legal and 11% were unsure. Nationwide, figures are similar. A poll conducted in March by the Pew Research Center found 59% opposed to same-sex marriage, compared to 32% in favor. Just 36 of the respondents in the Pew poll supported a constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage, however.
Smith said his position on the amendment does not mean he is against legal rights for gay couples. He endorsed the proposal only after its main sponsor, Colorado Republican senator Wayne Allard, revised it to make it clear that states will retain the ability to create legal rights for nontraditional families, Smith said. As originally drafted, the bill appeared to prohibit states from authorizing civil unions or domestic partnerships, Smith said. "I support legislation to create rights...to provide legal protections to nontraditional families," he said. "But the word 'marriage' and many of the values attached to that are ancient and important and confer enormous meaning upon the future of our country, because it involves the nurture and rearing of children."
Stachelberg questioned Smith's reading of the bill. Legal scholars consulted by her group say the revised language does not guarantee civil unions or other rights conferred by states, she said. More generally, Stachelberg said Smith appeared to be looking for a silver lining that doesn't exist. "I don't think there's a way to improve a discriminatory constitutional amendment," she said. "By casting a vote...for discriminating against the gay and lesbian community [Smith] would be writing discrimination into the U.S. Constitution against a certain class of people."
In truth, all sides expect the amendment to fail. Supporters concede they lack the needed two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate to bring the issue to state legislatures around the country. Still, Smith called the issue important, saying it is likely that state statutes barring same-sex marriage will be nullified by "activist judges," as happened in Massachusetts. "The truth is, the Constitution of the United States is going to be amended," he said. "The question is by whom: Liberal activist judges or the amendment process as laid out by our Constitution? I would just as soon include the American people in as important a debate as this."