The ugly clouds had gathered so long on the horizon that the first drop was a relief. Bush’s February 24 endorsement of a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage came after weeks of foul bellwethers, including coded gay-bashing in his clinker of a national address in January and a host of hostile signs flashed by surrogates. Even First Wife Laura got into the action, sounding like a drag-queen caricature of incensed propriety when she called same-sex unions “shocking.”
But the thunderclaps of repression against a ritual most Americans believe will become law in their lifetimes ring a bit hollow. Lost in the storm is the real risk to religious liberty that would come from embedding a particular religious bias about marriage in the nation’s founding document. As the 28th amendment, the Federal Marriage Amendment would trump the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. This is one reason real conservatives are seeking cover from Bush’s jihad on the constitution. And it’s another way Bush and the GOP could get struck by the lightning they’ve labored to unleash.
Leave it to the savvy leaders of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to spot the true shocker — and the vicious irony — in the president’s proposal. “Far from protecting religion,” the group’s executive director the Rev. Barry Lynn wrote Congress, “the Federal Marriage Amendment would harm religion by … relegating to second-class status the members of religions that have chosen to recognize same-sex unions.”
An astute observer of the religious right wing, Lynn put his finger on how the very constituency of evangelicals Bush is wooing stand to lose from lessening the legal protections for minority faiths in America. Make no mistake: That’s exactly what the amendment would do. “Not only would the Amendment contravene the longstanding Establishment Clause principle that government should not endorse some religious perspectives over others. But it would do so through a change to the Constitution itself … rendering this preference even more egregious.”
Lynn correctly blames “pressure from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell” for endangering “the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.” Giving these mullahs the go-ahead to craft federal policy could open the door to criminal sanctions of clergy who perform same-sex unions, institutions that host them, and friends or families who attend them. In short, whole swaths of the citizenry could wind up Most Wanted.
Facing such slippery slopes, mainstream Republicans are hardly in lockstep with Bush. Indeed, they are plotting their own path toward tolerance of gays and same-sex marriage. Asked about gay couples, former president Gerald Ford said, “I think they ought to be treated equally. Period.” Queried in October 2001 on federal benefits such as Social Security and whether gays should be treated the same as married couples, he told Detroit News columnist Deb Price, “I don’t see why they shouldn’t. I think that’s a proper goal.”
Progress within GOP ranks is not limited to coastal climes, but extends to the square states, including the one with the closest margin of all in the last presidential race. On February 20 in New Mexico, Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap, a Republican, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “It’s going to be across the country, so we wanted to be ahead of the curve,” Dunlap told the Associated Press. (In 2000, Gore carried the state by less than 400 votes, and the GOP has been eyeing the state as part of its quest for a winning quotient of 270 electoral votes in the fall.)
Longtime GOPers also are sounding the alarm over how frightfully beholden Bush has become to the far-right fringe. “For the first time in history, the president of the United States is the acknowledged leader of the religious right,” Kevin Phillips told Rolling Stone. The former Republican strategist paints a devastating portrait of misspent privilege by the Bush clan in his new book American Dynasty. He also has dropped his status as Republican and is now an independent.
Still, the deliberate attack on gay people that Bush has joined will test the mettle of tolerant, true conservatives to speak out more forcefully. In addition to the federal proposal, antigay groups are pressing forward with state constitutional amendments in 17 states. If many of these qualify for fall ballots — and they could in states like Missouri and Oregon — foul weather will follow.
But as the national debate advances, pressing the case against gay marriage threatens to label Bush and his party as intolerant scolds willing to sacrifice religious freedom for a sugar-high of election-year scapegoating. In the end, storm damage may hit the Republican’s turf hardest of all.