WASHINGTON — The issue of same-sex marriage demanded the attention of presidential candidates and Congress on Thursday, as a Massachusetts court ruling that permits gays and lesbians to marry led to renewed calls by conservatives for a constitutional amendment to ban such unions.
Conservatives pressured President Bush to embrace their drive for an amendment that would limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman. On the campaign trail, reporters deluged Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts with questions about how his home state and the nation should handle the issue.
In Congress, some senators who had earlier resisted the drive to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage said the Massachusetts ruling was making them rethink their opposition.
Wednesday's decision by the highest court in Massachusetts allows gays and lesbians to be married, beginning as soon as May 17, and makes Massachusetts the only state to permit same-sex marriage. The ruling ensures that the question of gay marriage "will be the No. 1 social issue in this election," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
If that is true, both Bush and the Democratic nominee — particularly if it is Kerry — will need to tread carefully, analysts said.
The task for Bush is how to satisfy his conservative base without alienating the wider electorate, they said. The danger for Kerry is that Republicans could use the Massachusetts ruling to bolster their argument that he is a far-left liberal who comes from a state that is out of touch with mainstream American values.
Bush issued a statement after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling. "Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman," he said. "If activist judges insist on redefining marriage by court order, the only alternative will be the constitutional process. We must do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage."
The president's statement did not go far enough for some, including conservative activist Gary Bauer. He said the Massachusetts ruling is exactly the kind of trigger that the president has said would make a constitutional amendment necessary. Bauer said administration officials had assured conservatives that Bush will back a constitutional amendment, but that he is waiting for the right moment to announce his support.
Given Wednesday's ruling, Bauer said, "this is clearly not an issue they are going to be able to play games on."
"On May 17, gay couples are going to start walking down the aisle. It would be impossible to get the votes of the base of the Republican party if they [the White House] were standing aside on this issue," Bauer said.
Some Republicans disagreed, predicting that Bush would continue to stop just short of endorsing the drive for a constitutional amendment in the belief that such a move is divisive and unnecessary.
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said that Bush and many other Republicans still believe that the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act is sufficient to protect the institution of marriage.
That act, signed into law by President Clinton, defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal law and said that no state is required to recognize another state's legalization of same-sex marriage. Indeed, many Republicans balked last year when a proposed constitutional amendment was introduced in the House and Senate that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Some said they did not want to interfere with states' rights to define marriage; some said the 1996 law was adequate to protect the institution.
On Thursday, some senators said they were reconsidering their positions in light of the Massachusetts ruling.
"I was thinking that the Defense of Marriage Act was enough," said Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.). "I was telling people: 'Let's go slow' " in amending the Constitution. "But this Massachusetts case concerns me greatly.''
Some lawmakers said the ruling's effect would be national because gay couples would marry in Massachusetts, then return to their home states and sue to have their marriages recognized, potentially invalidating state laws that bar same-sex marriages. At least 35 states have such bans.
Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) said that even though he introduced the proposed constitutional amendment in the Senate last year, he did so with reservations about the necessity of altering the Constitution. Now, Allard said, he believes the Massachusetts ruling gives the proposal "more impetus."
For Bush, however, there are risks in embracing a constitutional amendment, said Cheryl Jacques, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, which works for gay rights.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted between Jan. 15-18, 55% of those surveyed said that same-sex marriage should be illegal, Jacques said. But 58% said the matter should be left to the states.
"The president recognizes that, and that's why you're seeing him hedge," said Jacques, a former Massachusetts state legislator.
"This can be a real turnoff for the president . If this is all the president can talk about and can't talk about what he's doing to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs, the public will punish him at the polls," Jacques said.
On Thursday, however, Kerry looked to be the candidate with the most immediate problem.
Kerry has said he supports legal protections for same-sex couples but opposes the right of gays to marry. Still, reporters asked Kerry so many questions about gay marriage after a rally in Portland, Maine, that the candidate became impatient, insisting that he'd already given a full accounting of his beliefs.
"Look, I support equal rights and the right of people to have civil union, equal partnership rights," Kerry said. "I don't support marriage. I never have. That's my position."
Asked about endorsing a constitutional ban on gay marriage, Kerry said he "would have to see what language there is."
Queried on why he was one of only 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, Kerry said: "I don't approve of the gay-bashing in the United States Senate, which is what it was then. There was no relevant issue in the country. It had nothing to do with any position taken by any state whatsoever."
Vice President Dick Cheney, who has an openly gay daughter, said during the 2000 campaign that the question of allowing or banning gay marriage was "not a slam-dunk" and possibly best left to the states.
"The fact of the matter is that matter is regulated by the states," Cheney said at the time. "I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate. I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area.''
Last month, however, Cheney told the Denver Post that he would support Bush if the president made a push to ban same-sex marriage.
Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga contributed to this report from Portland, Maine.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times