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Senate committee debates Federal Marriage Amendment

Senate committee debates Federal Marriage Amendment

Saying same-sex marriages are likely to spread across America like a "wildfire," Senate majority leader Bill Frist exhorted Congress Wednesday to embrace a constitutional amendment banning them. "We simply will not let activist judges redefine that definition of marriage," the Tennessee Republican told the Senate Judiciary Constitution subcommittee. "We will not let activist judges redefine--I would say radically redefine--what marriage is, and that is a union between a man and a woman." Frist's broadside opened what promises to be a divisive election-year battle on Capitol Hill. Using the Massachusetts high court ruling permitting same-sex marriages as an impetus, Frist said that Congress should not wait until the states make a final decision on the subject. With same-sex marriages already being performed in California and New York, "the wildfire will begin, and in many ways it already has begun," he said. "Same-sex marriage is likely to spread through all 50 states in the coming years. It is becoming increasingly clear that Congress must act." The subcommittee also is focusing on whether Massachusetts judges overstepped their bounds and eroded traditional marriage. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) called Wednesday's hearing to examine the "judicial invalidation of traditional marriage laws." Cornyn supports a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage as the union of a man and a woman. "Judicial activism has made the defense of marriage a national issue that can only be addressed at the national level," Cornyn said. Last week President Bush called on Congress to quickly pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting gay marriages. In testimony prepared for delivery Wednesday, Yale University professor R. Lea Brilmayer said a constitutional amendment to determine what Massachusetts can do within its own borders would be wrong. "It is for the people of Massachusetts to say what their constitution should say," she said. "This premise is the basic principle of federalism, upon which the American constitutional system as a whole depends." But other legal experts disagree. Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning, who is also expected to testify, said the Massachusetts ruling could invalidate Nebraska's ban on same-sex marriages. The federal Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton, was an attempt to leave the gay marriage issue up to the states. But Bruning said recent court decisions indicate that federal courts may eventually allow same-sex marriages. The arguments for and against a constitutional amendment also fall along social and civil rights lines. Ron Schlittler, policy director for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said people trying to build a life together, whether straight or gay, should be treated the same. But Pastor Daniel de Leon Sr. of Santa Ana, Calif., in testimony prepared for the hearing, said marriage is for the benefit of children, not adults. He said efforts to stop gay marriage are not comparable to past opposition to biracial unions. "Laws forbidding interracial marriage are about racism," he said. "Laws protecting traditional marriage are about children." Gay rights groups said the Senate's efforts to pass an amendment are an affront to civil rights. "This is politics at its nastiest," said Cheryl Jacques, president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. "It's a shame that the White House is orchestrating hearings to discuss whether gay families should have basic human rights protections." Lawmakers are divided on the issue, with many expressing a reluctance to tinker with the Constitution. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples and would not vote for a constitutional amendment. And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is a member of the subcommittee, said the debate "is not about activist judges. It's about politics--an attempt to drive a wedge between one group of citizens and the rest of the country, solely for partisan advantage."

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