WASHINGTON -- As George W. Bush traveled to London Nov. 18, he learned of the decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upholding gay marriage. It had been dreaded, expected and awaited for months, giving the president plenty of time to decide whether to endorse an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet, he uttered only pro forma disapproval of the Massachusetts decision, pledging to defend "the sanctity of marriage."
Aides said President Bush wanted to concentrate on his mission in Britain without distraction by a domestic social issue. However, he has long since returned to Washington (and made a round trip to Baghdad), without revealing his intentions. In fact, the White House is divided, as is the Republican Party, on an issue Bush cannot avoid.
This is a yes-or-no choice for the president, with a middle course not possible. Without a constitutional amendment, gay marriage will become part of the fabric of American life. Bush must decide, therefore, whether that is truly important. Christian conservatives who support him say that it is, transcending abortion in shaping the country's culture.
These conservatives are not happy with Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who denounced the 4 to 3 ruling by his state's highest court but wants the matter settled in Massachusetts. That sets a disastrous course, says the social right.
The Massachusetts court has given the state legislature 180 days to end restrictions against same-sex marriage. Simultaneously, the legislators are expected to amend the constitution to prohibit same-sex marriages, but that change cannot come before the state's voters until the 2006 election. This process opens a period of more than two and one-half years, during which Massachusetts homosexuals could marry each other and adopt children.
Would these same-sex marriage partners after 2006 be deprived of newly enjoyed legal privileges? They would likely appeal to the federal courts, and there is no doubt they would be sustained by the present composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. The 6 to 3 Lawrence decision on June 26 affirming gay rights is widely viewed as a de facto affirmation of same-sex marriage. Prospects for a new majority on the court in place by then are purely speculative.
Thus, social conservatives say Congress must immediately begin action on an amendment that could become part of the U.S. Constitution more quickly than the Massachusetts Constitution could be changed. But the president's approval is essential.
There is not much room for fine-tuning. On May 21, Republican freshman Rep. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado introduced a constitutional amendment saying "marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman," adding that federal or state constitutions cannot be interpreted to the contrary. Last Monday, another Colorado Republican, Sen. Wayne Allard, introduced an identical amendment with three GOP co-sponsors.
The position by the six serious Democratic presidential candidates opposing a constitutional amendment would lead to legalization of gay marriage that they profess to oppose. More difficult for the president, the same position is held by libertarian and neo-conservative members of his own coalition.
A "White House adviser" was quoted by the Los Angeles Times saying Bush "doesn't much care for 'moralistic debates.'" Neo-conservative journalist David Brooks, recently hired by the New York Times as a columnist, stirred the nation's capital Nov. 22 by writing: ''We (conservatives) shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage."
Charlie Cook, a respected campaign handicapper, has called this issue "frivolous and insignificant" when compared with casualties in Iraq and unemployment in America. Not in the opinion of Bush's social conservatives, who over the last two weeks have made clear to the White House that this -- even more than abortion -- is their great concern about the nation's social fabric.
These Bush backers see the president under worldwide assault as a Christian, particularly in a Europe where atheism is on the rise and religion on the decline. They cannot imagine he will not endorse a constitutional amendment. They cannot understand why he has not done so already on an issue that has been percolating for months.