One of the most divisive cultural issues in America, same-sex marriage, is being aired in the U.S. Senate ahead of an expected vote this week on a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.
America's founding document, the Constitution, has been altered just 27 times since it was originally drafted in 1787. Some social conservatives say a 28th amendment is needed if the traditional definition of marriage is to be upheld in the United States.
In the wake of court-ordered legalized marriage for gay couples in the state of Massachusetts, the Senate has begun debate on a proposed constitutional amendment that would restrict wedlock to people of the opposite sex.
The issue is thorny for many legislators, like Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, who spoke on CNN's Late Edition program Sunday. "I oppose same-sex marriage, and I believe marriage should be defined as between man and woman," she said.
Yet Senator Snowe opposes the proposed constitutional amendment. She argues that federal law already enshrines marriage as a purely heterosexual institution, and that America's founding document should not be tampered with to decide the issue.
Ms. Snowe is not alone. The vast majority of U.S. legislators, both Republican and Democrat, are on record as opposing gay marriage, mirroring polls that show most Americans do not favor extending marriage to homosexuals. But it is not known whether the proposed constitutional amendment will garner majority backing in the Senate, let alone the two-thirds "super-majority" needed for passage. For many legislators, opposition to gay marriage does not automatically translate into support for the amendment.
President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress are undaunted. In his weekly radio address Saturday, Mr. Bush said marriage is a fundamental institution of civilization that merits special protection from the mandates of unelected judges. "When judges insist on imposing their arbitrary will on the people, the only alternative left to the people is an amendment to the constitution, the only law a court cannot overturn. A constitutional amendment should never be undertaken lightly. Yet to defend marriage, our nation has no other choice," he said.
Some Democrats are questioning the timing of the amendment, which the Republican leadership in the Senate has scheduled for a vote just weeks before the Democratic Party's national convention. Both the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, and his running mate, Senator John Edwards, oppose gay marriage but favor extending many of the benefits to gay couples under a different title, such as civil union.
California Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein voiced her opposition to the constitutional amendment on CNN's Late Edition. "I am going to vote against it. I find it really intolerable that it is coming up now. Everyone knows that it does not have the votes to be placed before the American people. It is there only to create, I think, to create a major [political] conflict. I also believe, and Supreme Court decisions buttress this belief: family law has always been the prerogative of the states [not the federal government]," she said.
Also appearing on Late Edition was Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney. The Cheneys' daughter, Mary, is openly gay. In recent months, the vice president has said he will support President Bush's efforts to secure passage of the proposed amendment, an apparent reversal of earlier statements in which he said such matters should be left to individual states to decide.
Lynne Cheney said she feels her husband's original position, staked out during the year-2000 campaign, was preferable, and that people should be able to enter into the relationship of their choice. Pressed to explain the apparent contradiction, Ms. Cheney asked that the interview move on to a new topic.