Members of the U.S. Senate Wednesday debated whether Congress should back a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The debate came as Portland, Oregon, became the latest U.S. municipality to approve gay marriage, after similar actions in San Francisco and the small New York town of New Paltz.
Just weeks after President Bush called for a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage, Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist vowed that Congress would take action on the matter.
At a Capitol Hill news conference, Mr. Frist referred to a Massachusetts high court ruling allowing same-sex marriages and said U.S. lawmakers should not wait until the states make a final decision on the matter. "When you have activist judges radically redefining what marriage means, what the law spells out, we are going to act," he said.
Senator Frist noted that same-sex marriages are already taking place in California and New York. He predicted a trend in such marriages would sweep across all 50 states.
At a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the issue, Chairman John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, also expressed concern at the growing number of U.S. municipalities allowing gay marriages. He agreed that a constitutional amendment is needed to put a stop to it. "Defenders of marriage and democracy alike recognize that this is a serious problem - and indeed a national problem, requiring a national solution," he said.
But gay rights advocates argue that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue. They argue that banning such marriages violates anti-discrimination laws by barring couples from inheriting each other's assets, jointly owning homes or providing each other with health benefits.
"I believe a constitutional amendment on marriage is unnecessary, divisive and utterly inconsistent with our constitutional tradition," said Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary subcommittee.
Senator Feingold's fellow Democrat on the subcommittee, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, accused President Bush of playing politics by calling for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage.
"We have amended the Constitution only 17 times since the adoption of the Bill of Rights," said Mr. Kennedy. "Many of the amendments have been adopted to expand and protect people's rights. By endorsing this shameful proposed amendment in a desperate tactic to divide Americans, in an attempt to salvage a faltering re-election campaign, President Bush will go down in history as the first president to try to write bias back into the Constitution."
The controversy over the issue is expected to grow this election year.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who virtually wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday, says he is against gay marriage but would oppose amending the U.S. Constitution to bar it.
A 1996 law, the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Clinton, seeks to leave the issue of gay marriage up to the states.
But some legal experts say recent court decisions may pave the way for federal courts to allow same-sex marriages.
One such expert is Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee the Massachusetts court ruling allowing same-sex marriages could invalidate his own state's ban on such unions.
"This country is heading down a path that will allow the Judiciary branch to create a national policy for same-sex marriages," he said.
A constitutional amendment must be approved by two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and ratified by at least 38 states.