WASHINGTON — The congressional sponsors of a constitutional amendment that would prohibit same-sex marriage announced new wording Monday aimed at building political support for the measure by easing concerns that it would block states from allowing civil unions of gay or lesbian couples.
Sen. Wayne Allard and Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave, both Colorado Republicans, said they believed that the rewording would "make it perfectly clear," despite language defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman, that the amendment would leave states free to enact laws allowing civil unions or domestic partnership benefits for gay couples.
The revision says: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any state, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."
The phrase "nor state nor federal law," which was in the second sentence of the earlier version, has been dropped.
Allard introduced the revised language in the Senate on Monday; Musgrave said she would introduce it in the House soon.
The change reflected the sponsors' efforts to deal with the substantial political obstacles awaiting the measure. After initially announcing their proposal, Allard and Musgrave found that they were running into opposition not only from liberals but also from conservative supporters of states' rights.
Allard and Musgrave said Monday that they were making only "technical changes" to the proposal, which has become a key social issue in the presidential election. President Bush is advocating a constitutional change that he says is needed to defend traditional marriage. Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumed Democratic nominee, opposes such action.
But when asked whether he thought the new wording would garner more support for the amendment, Allard replied: "Yes, because it's clarifying and it takes out ambiguity."
Critics argued that the amendment might still restrict the states' right to enact civil unions.
"I think that we're going to continue to see scholars argue over what it means or doesn't mean," said Ron Schlittler, director of policy for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a lobbying group for gay rights. "It is just still murky. What do we mean by 'legal incidents thereof'?"
The lawmakers' announcement came on the eve of the Senate Judiciary Committee's first hearing on the proposal, which both chambers are expected to consider this year. Committee Democrats have protested that the hearing would be little more than political theater aimed at keeping the emotional issue on the national agenda in an election year.
They pointed out that in the closely divided Senate, where Republicans control 51 of the 100 seats, the amendment — however worded — had little chance of achieving the two-thirds vote required. A similar supermajority is needed in the House. If both chambers pass the amendment, it must still be ratified by 38 states before becoming part of the Constitution.
But Tony Perkins, director of the conservative Family Research Council, insisted that it had a chance of passage, particularly with the wording change.
"I think it removes false arguments. It takes away the red herring for the other side," Perkins said. Opponents of the amendment, he said, have argued that it would preclude civil unions or the granting of domestic partnership benefits — arguments "that are taking the focus away from marriage," Perkins said.
The strategy of the amendment's supporters, he said, is to ensure that the debate over a constitutional amendment on marriage "is going to come down to a very clear choice between lawmakers who want to stand with marriage or those who don't."
Musgrave and Allard were joined by dozens of members of the Alliance for Marriage, a conservative group whose founder, Matt Daniels, helped formulate the original language. They applauded and cheered the Rev. Richard Richardson, assistant pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and director of political affairs for the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, when he spoke on behalf of the reworded amendment.
Marriage, he said, "is about children, but activist lawyers are convincing activist judges that marriage is about discrimination." On the contrary, he said, supporters of a marriage amendment "share a common vision of seeing more children in America raised in a home with a mother and a father."
Momentum for passing a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman has grown since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last year that the state Legislature must recognize same-sex marriage, and some local officials — in San Francisco and elsewhere — began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
The wording change did not please all conservatives, however. Concerned Women for America, which opposed the original amendment because, the group argued, it would allow states to legalize civil unions, said in statement that the rewording was worse.
The new amendment "still allows for the erosion of marriage by allowing states to create civil unions," said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America.
A state that creates civil unions and domestic partnerships, he said, "gives government approval to behavior that is immoral, unhealthy and destructive to individuals, families and communities. It sends a message to children that marriage itself no longer matters."