Politics of the Altar

Back in 2004, suburban Seattle pastor Alec Row-lands watched with dismay as gay couples in Massachusetts flocked to courthouses and churches, exchanged vows and walked away legally wed. Now he worries a similar scenario could unfold in his own backyard. Last year, the Washington State Supreme Court heard arguments in two gay-marriage cases of its own; a decision is expected soon. In Massachusetts, an obscure law allows only state residents to wed. But Washington has no residency requirements. So if the justices approve gay marriage--as many on both sides of the issue predict--courthouse doors would swing open to gay couples across the nation. "We will become the Las Vegas for same-sex marriage," frets Rowlands.

Just two years ago, gay-marriage opponents like Rowlands were everywhere. Thirteen states passed constitutional amendments barring same-sex unions and, in Ohio, the marriage ban was widely credited with boosting turnout and propelling George W. Bush to a second term. But after Election Day, the issue faded. Now it's back, complete with all the activists, dire predictions and dueling poll numbers. But the landscape has changed since 2004. Democrats argue that gay marriage is just a diversion from rising gas prices, the ongoing struggle in Iraq and immigration reform. With so much else to worry about, will voters care?

This week Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will again bring the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) up for a vote; the House could weigh in next month. Though it isn't expected to pass either House, supporters want to get pols on the record before November. "It's a way to build momentum," says FMA author Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage. Bush himself had been mostly mum on gay marriage since his re-election. But now, with his poll numbers in a nose dive and even his most enthusiastic supporters grousing, Bush took up the cause in his radio address Saturday; an amendment is needed because "activist courts have left our nation with no other choice," he explained. The president also plans to address amendment supporters in the Old Executive Office Building on Monday.

While the GOP leadership clearly hopes this tack can revive their sputtering election prospects this fall, some GOP strategists aren't so sure. Pew polls show a 10-point jump in support for gay marriage since 2004. And Bush pollster Matthew Dowd doubts it was decisive last time around. "It didn't drive turnout in 2004," he says. "That is urban legend." Turnout was the same in states with bans on the ballot and those without, Dowd says. GOP consultant Grover Norquist also questions how gay marriage plays as an electoral issue. Though social conservatives vote for marriage bans, it's not clear whether that will translate into votes for GOP candidates. "We don't have much to go on," he says. For their part, gay-rights leaders would be happy to leave the issue off the ballot. "We have to make sure [the initiatives] never see the light of day," says Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese, who would prefer to press his case in court.

Evangelical leaders insist they know how gay marriage affects their voters--they'll stay home if politicians don't push for the FMA. "It's the one issue I have seen that eclipses even the abortion issue among Southern Baptists," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Last month James Dobson, the influential founder of Focus on the Family, met privately with key Republicans, including Frist, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader John Boehner, to warn them about the political consequences of failing to promote issues like marriage. "If you forget us, we'll forget you," he said, according to a GOP House leadership aide who was briefed on the gatherings, but declined to be identified discussing private meetings.

Though Bush himself has publicly embraced the amendment, he never seemed to care enough to press the matter. One of his old friends told NEWSWEEK that same-sex marriage barely registers on the president's moral radar. "I think it was purely political. I don't think he gives a s--t about it. He never talks about this stuff," said the friend, who requested anonymity to discuss his private conversations with Bush. White House aides, who also declined to be identified, insist that the president does care about banning gay marriage. They say Monday's events with amendment supporters--Bush will also meet privately with a small group--have been in the works "for weeks" and aren't just a sop to conservatives.

Whatever Bush's motivation, his actions aren't likely to quiet his critics. Land says he's happy Bush is speaking out, but he'd like to see signs of real commitment to the issue. "We know what a full-court press looks like when we see one," Land says. A White House official, who declined to be identified discussing strategy, says Bush has not made calls on the amendment because "nobody has asked us."

Whatever the political maneuvering, it's the courts that could make the next move. Last week New York's highest court heard arguments that the state must allow gay couples to wed. A similar case in New Jersey was argued in February. Decisions could come later this summer. At the same time, judges recently struck down 2004 bans from Georgia, Ohio and Nebraska. "It's just a matter of time before the other shoe falls," says Family Research Council president Tony Perkins. "This is not an issue you can take a pass on." For politicians and activists, that may be true. But average voters might do exactly that.

Politics of the Altar | News