A racially and religiously diverse coalition proposed an amendment to the Constitution on Thursday that would explicitly define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, launching the latest volley in an intensifying battle over the degree of recognition and benefits that gay and lesbian couples should receive.
The Federal Marriage Amendment will soon be introduced in Congress, according to members of the Alliance for Marriage. However, they declined to name any members of Congress who have agreed to sponsor the group's amendment and did not provide a specific timeline for its introduction.
Civil rights and gay and lesbian groups immediately condemned the proposal as an attempt to eliminate all legal protections for gay families and make gays and lesbians "second-class citizens."
Alliance officials said their proposal is a response to recent state court decisions that they believe have undermined the institution of marriage, particularly a 1999 Vermont Supreme Court ruling that required the state to recognize gay and lesbian "civil unions" and grant such couples more than 300 benefits usually associated with male-female marriage.
"The progressive weakening of marriage is now so far advanced that we can no longer hope to preserve the understanding of marriage for future generations, short of using the ultimate democratic tool available," said Bill Teng, senior pastor of the Chinese Community Church of Washington.
An array of religions and races was represented by those who spoke at the amendment's unveiling: ministers from two of the nation's largest black churches--the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ--along with Latino, Asian and white Christians, and Jewish and Muslim leaders.
The text of the amendment proposed by the group states that "marriage in the United States shall consist only of a union of a man and a woman" and prohibits any constitutions or laws from requiring "that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."
Alliance director Matt Daniels said that the amendment was written to "address a long history of abuse by the judicial process" in defining marriage benefits, citing the Vermont decision as well as challenges to same-sex marriage bans pending in Georgia and Massachusetts courts.
Instead of letting the courts resolve the issue, Daniels said, the amendment allows "the democratic process at the state level [to] decide the allocation of the benefits of marriage."
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay advocacy group, blasted the amendment as an attack on gay rights.
"They are trying to write gay families out of the U.S. Constitution," said David M. Smith, a spokesman for the group. The amendment "could deny gay families any protection under the law forever."
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) also criticized the proposal. "The notion that you would put this kind of specific social policy in the federal Constitution is a great mistake," he said.
"[Also], of course, I disagree with it personally," said Frank, who is gay and has been a strong advocate of gay rights. "It's a punitive act against people whose only crime is they're not only in love with another person but are prepared to be legally and maritally responsible for that person."
Existing laws preventing recognition of same-sex marriages make the amendment unnecessary to achieving the alliance's goals, Smith said. Such laws include "defense of marriage" measures in 34 states, including a California ballot initiative passed last year and a federal regulation passed in 1996.
The American Civil Liberties Union joined in the outcry against the amendment, issuing a statement that likened it to a "nuclear bomb" that would "wipe out every single law protecting gay and lesbian families."
Though Daniels offered no specifics about sponsors or timing, he said the amendment would be introduced "in the relatively near future" and that the alliance has secured firm commitments of support from House and Senate members.
Amendments require the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of state legislatures for ratification, making passage of Thursday's proposal unlikely, as even Daniels appeared to recognize. He spoke instead of the need to "send a positive message to kids about marriage, about families and about their future."
Frank predicted the measure will face major obstacles even among conservatives because it would deprive states of the ability to form their own civil union policies. "I don't think it will go anywhere at all," he said.