Lawyer Was Ready for the Marriage Debate

Times Staff Writer

When the subject of same-sex marriage crashed onto news pages and into the thick of public debate this month, an already drafted Federal Marriage Amendment was ready and waiting to be considered.

Matt Daniels is the lawyer who drafted the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage. The story of his upbringing does not resemble that of the traditional family he envisions for the nation -- and that experience has fueled his involvement in the cause.

Daniels was abandoned by his father and raised in poverty by a struggling mother. His decision to marry eight years ago was as much a leap of fear as of faith. Even today at 40, married with two children of his own, Daniels has yet to fully recover from growing up in a broken home in Spanish Harlem.

His upbringing left him convinced that the best environment for a child is the one he was denied: a home with a mother and a father.

Now, as Daniels helps lead conservative forces in the campaign to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, he says he is not driven by animosity toward gay people but by a desire to ensure that other children are given the home life he never had.

"The absence of my father from our family left us vulnerable.... My mother probably would not have slipped into a lifelong depression had she had another person to bear the burdens of raising a child," declared Daniels, whose years-long crusade to "protect the common-sense view of marriage" has recently vaulted him to the center of a national political fight.

His simple yet sweeping two-sentence amendment banning gay marriage -- but without prohibiting states from allowing civil unions -- has been introduced in both chambers of Congress. At least 114 lawmakers have signed on in support. President Bush has signaled that he might endorse it.

The proposed amendment reads: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union between a man and a woman. Neither this constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

Daniels believes that only a proposal preserving the right of states to allow unions other than marriage, such as Vermont's approval of civil unions and California's recognition of domestic partnerships, will clear the high bar of amendment to the Constitution. An amendment requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states.

"This is an institution with unique benefits for kids and we tamper with it at our peril," Daniels said of marriage in a recent telephone interview, between press conferences and lobbying to build support for his Federal Marriage Amendment. "It is my belief that the union of a man and a woman creates a human community that has unique benefits for children."

In leaping to the forefront of what is shaping up to be one of the most contentious issues of the presidential election year, Daniels has struck an unlikely coup. Despite his Ivy League credentials -- he attended Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School before earning a doctorate in politics from Brandeis University -- he is hardly the polished Washington lobbyist.

Four years ago, he founded the fledgling Alliance for Marriage, a nonpartisan, interfaith coalition that pales in size and budget to long-established conservative groups like the Family Research Council. His staff of seven is working all hours lately out of an office building in suburban Virginia that has been described as a "hole in the wall." Their telephone lines are regularly consumed by calls from around the world.

Daniels is a registered Republican and practicing Presbyterian, and his cause carries a decidedly Christian conservative brand. Yet he does not view himself as a soldier of the right. "Ours is a centrist movement," he said, "and I have the wounds from the right and the left to prove it."

Some conservative groups, in fact, are uneasy with Daniels' proposed amendment because it does not bar states from sanctioning civil unions.

"Civil unions are gay marriages by another name," said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America. "This would in effect put into the Constitution a guarantee that states could do something that we regard as immoral and destructive."

While many conservative activists are intent on preserving the traditional family, Daniels wants to codify the one he never had.

He was 2 when his father -- "an aspiring intellectual and irresponsible man" -- walked out, leaving his mother to manage alone in an increasingly violent pocket of Manhattan. "He would live off women. The kid would come along and he would split," Daniels recalled. "He married four times; my mom was No. 2."

His mother carved out a marginal existence as a secretary, until the day she got off at the wrong bus stop and was mugged by four men. She suffered a broken back, lost her job and, in great physical and emotional pain, turned to alcohol. "There was no second source of income and we were compelled to go on welfare," Daniels said. "If my father had been in our home, chances are that would not have happened."

A Dartmouth scholarship was his ticket out. Later, in law school, he studied the social consequences of fatherless families. At Brandeis, he researched the way courts are used as tools of social change. What he found bothered him.

While other conservative groups were focused on stopping abortion and stem-cell experiments, Daniels spent years tracking lawsuits that sought to "strike down our marriage laws." Jurists, he believed, were driving social change against the will of the democratic majority. If the trend continued, he reasoned, a constitutional amendment would be the only way to stop it.

Even during those years, his fatherless childhood plagued him. At 32, he married a family physician, but the decision to wed was tortured. "Imagine you are considering taking a very important job

The lingering effects of growing up fatherless shaped what would ultimately become the mission of the Alliance for Marriage: "More children raised at home with a mother and a father." The group has worked on a wide range of efforts to prevent family disintegration, including eliminating penalties for welfare recipients who marry, reducing what is often called the "marriage tax'" and making the workplace marriage-friendly.

But it was same-sex unions, Daniels believed, that would inevitably provoke the biggest battle, once the courts' acknowledgment of gay partnerships collided with the mainstream conception of what makes a marriage.

Last fall, his political prescience was validated when the Massachusetts high court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to marry, a decision it affirmed this month. Conservative groups promptly demanded a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriages.

There at the ready, language in hand, was Daniels.

Since then, the mayor of San Francisco directed the city clerk to change the wording on marriage licenses and begin issuing them to couples regardless of gender -- and more than a thousand same-sex couples have lined up to exchange vows on Valentine's Day weekend. Opponents of the mayor's action have gone to court to try to have the mayor's action voided.

Support for the amendment has snowballed and Daniels soon found himself spearheading an election-year issue that is helping to reenergize the Christian conservative movement. Still, it makes for a strained alliance with some conservative activists, who believe the amendment does not go far enough in banning all legal recognition for gay unions.

Some supporters say that Daniels' amendment is politically shrewd, because some lawmakers -- even those opposed to gay marriage -- believe that allowing civil unions is a matter of states' rights.

"The White House and Republican leaders have told conservatives this is all they are going to get," Knight said. "But we believe the message ought to be the other way around: If you don't deliver an actual honest-to-God defense of marriage, then we won't see this as a friendly act."

Gary Bauer, a conservative activist and former Republican presidential candidate and conservative activist, sees Daniels' proposal as "an appropriate starting point" that he expects to change as it makes its way through Congress. "It's not what I would prefer," he said. "But I don't think there is anything written in stone on the wording."

Meanwhile, Daniels continues his crusade for votes.

"If you assert a lesbian couple is the full functional equivalent of a male-female family, you are making the claim that half the human race -- dads -- make no unique contribution to the care or nurturing of children," he said . "And the same holds true for mothers. Each has different and complementary gifts needed to raise a child." Daniels insists he feels no animosity toward gay people. His education exposed him to more gay colleagues and professors than he can count. "One would have to have lived in a hermetically sealed box to have escaped interaction with lots and lots of gays and lesbians," he said.

But would even a constitutional amendment have kept his father from walking out that day?

"No, it wouldn't," he conceded.

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