Like that proverbial bad penny, the administration-backed marriage protection amendment to the United States Constitution designed to exclude gay and lesbian couples from the protections of marriage is back with us.
I write prior to the scheduled debate during the week of June 5th, but there seems general agreement that the vote for cloture will receive not more than 52 or 53 votes, well short of the 60 votes required and far short of the 67 votes required for passage of the amendment itself. [Ed. Note: The vote was 49 to 48 in favor of closing debate and bringing the measure to a final vote. As Varnell notes, 60 votes were required.]
There is also general agreement that Republican leaders who are pushing the amendment know their effort will fail and are going through this charade prior to the 2006 congressional elections. They do this to placate restive social conservatives who believe the administration is not paying enough attention to their concerns as if any administration could.
Not that those voters would vote for a Democrat, but they might stay at home and not vote, giving Democrats a comparative advantage. So the amendment functions as an “incumbent protection amendment” for conservative Republicans.
I for one would like to see the amendment come to a vote, since its defeat would be a convincing political victory for gays. Equally, it would be good to get senators on the record about the amendment itself instead of the surrogate issue of cloture so we know who our friends are and who is just mouthing support when convenient.
But Democrats are dead set against allowing a vote on the amendment. They want the issue to go away. Above all, they want to avoid having to vote against constitutionally barring gays from marriage because that would expose vulnerable Democrats to Republican charges of coddling homosexuals. So the vote against cloture is a Democratic incumbent protection ploy.
For the same reason, only one Senate Democrat, Ted Kennedy, spoke in favor of gay marriage in 2004. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold is reportedly willing to support gay marriage this time around, and that is excellent news. But the rest of the Democrats are trotting out any reason they can think of to oppose the amendment other than the notion that gays should actually be able to marry.
They say: We do not want to alter a sacred national document; marriage should be left to the states; Congress has more pressing issues to worry about; this is a harmfully divisive issue; or this is just a GOP sop to the religious right anything but supporting gay marriage itself. That’s sad.
But the shameful thing is that our supposed gay advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, does no better. Its president, Joe Salmonese, said, “The president should stop threatening to put discrimination in our Constitution and use valuable airtime as an opportunity to lay out an agenda to address the challenges facing our country.
President Bush is pandering to far-right extremists and making divisive, discriminatory politics his priority.”
True enough, but do you see anything actually pro-gay in this? Instead of using this unprecedented media opportunity to advance good arguments for gay marriage to skeptical but open-minded Americans, instead of explaining why gay marriage is as writer Jonathan Rauch argues “good for gays, good for straights, and good for America,” Solmonese merely parrots Democratic excuses.
Nothing could make clearer that the Human Rights Campaign is more interested in providing cover for Democrats than in promoting gay equality. Salmonese cannot even bring himself to call the amendment a “marriage exclusion amendment” or a “marriage prohibition amendment,” although either might be an useful rhetorical counter-thrust.
Are we going to go through this every two years? It seems so, at least for a while. Conservative Republicans say that even if the amendment fails to pass this time, efforts to promote it now can build momentum for eventual passage. But they are surely whistling past the graveyard of soon-to-be-defunct political initiatives.
Polls over the last two decades show a continuing rise in tolerance for and acceptance of gays. Polls also show a slow decline in support for a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.
If present trends continue, Americans will eventually come to see gay marriage as acceptable. So If Republicans cannot pass the amendment now, their chances in the future seem increasingly bleak.
The American people have come far in the last half-century from criminalized homosexual activity in every state to supporting openly gay people in the military and seriously arguing about gay marriage.
Our job is to make sure that progress continues by explaining the case for marriage whenever we have the opportunity to parents, relatives, friends, and when possible in the public square steadily, calmly and without rancor.
Many of Paul Varnell’s previous columns are posted at the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org).
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 09, 2006.