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.