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Leading Foe of Gay Marriage Shows Mettle

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Times Staff Writer

The conservative activists who traveled to Loveland, Colo., last summer to meet Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave had their doubts that the soft-spoken onetime housewife was the ideal flag carrier for the national campaign against gay marriage.

A Republican from rural eastern Colorado, Musgrave had proposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage just six months into her first term in Washington. It was an issue that social conservatives hoped might become key in the presidential campaign, and they fretted that the woman whose name was on the bill was untested in the national culture wars. But the group came away reassured.

“We left the meeting very encouraged that this could not be in better hands -- more experienced hands, to be sure, but not better,” said Glenn Stanton, the nonprofit Christian group Focus on the Family’s senior analyst for marriage.

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Musgrave, mother of four and grandmother of five, has so far lived up to Stanton’s expectations. She has stubbornly, but not stridently, pressed her case for her constitutional amendment -- and President Bush has told Republicans that hers is the version he supports.

As a Colorado state legislator, Musgrave had built a reputation as a champion of controversial proposals to ease gun restrictions, tighten abortion laws and rule out gay marriage. But in Washington, even as she takes on some of the same issues, she has cultivated an image of low-key reasonableness and political pragmatism.

In interviews and debates, Musgrave avoids expressing opinions on homosexuality. Instead, she frames the need for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman as part of the urgency to defend marriage as an institution. She says “activist judges,” such as those on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court who ordered the state Legislature to recognize gay marriage, are forcing Congress to protect marriage by taking the drastic step of amending the Constitution.

“Marriage is just this important,” Musgrave said in an interview in her congressional office.

But she has displayed a political toughness and ambition rare in a freshman. She stood up to conservative groups that pushed her hard to tighten the language of the amendment to specifically ban civil unions. And when Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) announced this month that he would not seek reelection in November, Musgrave seriously considered running for his seat before deciding instead to seek reelection to the House.

“I came to Congress with goals in mind, really wanting to accomplish something,” the 56-year-old Musgrave said. “I’m going to be very tenacious.”

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Her stubbornness has frustrated some conservatives and alarmed some of her opponents.

“I think she’s shown a lot of courage and heart in taking the lead” on a constitutional amendment, said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, which is affiliated with Concerned Women for America. But he said Musgrave should press to ban civil unions. “You either think homosexuality is wrong or you don’t,” he said.

Knight also warned Musgrave against pushing for floor votes this year, before she has had time to build adequate support.

“We don’t know of a case in which an amendment has been brought up, defeated, then brought up again,” Knight said. “Once an amendment is defeated, it is pretty much gone.”

But for those who think Musgrave can be pressured to change or postpone it, her pastor has a word of warning: “They don’t know Marilyn.”

For 12 years, Ben Baughman, the minister at the First Assembly of God Church in Fort Morgan, a farm town of 11,000 people, has watched Musgrave balance her roles as homemaker and politician. A close friend, he describes her as “an enigma,” a woman who “is a gracious lady, loving,” and at the same time “strong as can be.”

Her church, Baughman said, teaches that gay marriage “is not what God had planned.” But he said the church is not “anti-homosexual.” “We’re anti-sin,” he said. “We are compassionate toward anybody who is a sinner.”

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Musgrave insists that the fast pace of events is improving her long-shot amendment’s chances of earning the two-thirds votes needed to pass in the House and Senate this year.

Unless Congress steps in, Musgrave says, the Supreme Court may eventually strike down the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

“If we redefine marriage, anything goes,” she said. “You could allow polygamy, group marriage.”

Musgrave has come a long way since growing up in what she has said was an impoverished family in Weld County. A former substitute teacher, she began her political career by running for the school board. She and her husband of 36 years, Steve Musgrave, own a hay-baling company.

Now Musgrave is debating congressional veterans, constitutional experts and gay and lesbian activists on the merits of the proposed amendment, which has more than 115 co-sponsors. Evangelical churches invite her to speak about her amendment, and she has been the subject of a clutch of profiles in the national news media.

Her critics have accused Musgrave of hate-mongering and gay-bashing, of being willing to alter the fundamental document of American democracy for the sake of political expediency.

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“What I’ve been struck by more than anything else is her singularly anti-gay position,” said Winnie Stachelberg, a lobbyist with Human Rights Campaign, a gay, lesbian and transgender rights lobbying organization. “Her main focus is discrimination against the gay and lesbian community.”

After debating Musgrave about the proposed amendment, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay, said he thought he had taken her measure. “There are some who think that homosexuality is immoral and evil -- I think that’s where she’s at politically.”

Musgrave bridled at his characterization. “I am continually astonished at Barney Frank’s arrogance and lack of respect for others,” she said in a written response. “Remarks such as these, combined with his extreme views ... show why Mr. Frank isn’t taken very seriously within Congress.”

The congresswoman’s supporters say they admire her willingness to fight for deeply held beliefs.

“She’s definitely taking political risk,” said Tom McClusky of the conservative Family Research Council, a group that initially pushed to have a ban on civil unions too but has since decided to support the amendment. “For a freshman congresswoman to be so bold -- Democrat or Republican -- that should be admired.”

Musgrave became the sponsor of the amendment after she received a visit last spring from Matt Daniels, founder of the nonprofit Marriage Alliance. Daniels had written a proposed constitutional amendment but was having no luck in his effort to find a congressional sponsor.

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Musgrave, who had pushed for a Defense of Marriage Act in the Colorado Legislature, seemed the ideal candidate.

“I wanted somebody who was familiar with the issue, who knew that there would be a lot of pressure on them -- especially at that early stage,” Daniels said in an interview. “It was clear to me that she was somebody who had counted the cost and would be OK with that, because of her deep personal convictions.”

She signed on after a single meeting with Daniels. But when she introduced the amendment last June, the White House and Republican leaders were reluctant to open so politically polarizing an issue. That changed only in November, when the highest court in Massachusetts galvanized the conservatives with its ruling that the state Legislature must recognize gay marriage.

After the ruling, thousands of gay couples married in ceremonies in San Francisco, New Mexico, New York and elsewhere. Many conservatives argued that only a constitutional amendment would protect the Defense of Marriage Act and similar laws in 38 states from legal attack.

Watching San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom perform marriages for gay couples in defiance of California law, Musgrave said, reminded her of “when I was a teacher and there was the kid who is going to get all the attention in the classroom, until the only thing you can do is put him out in the hall.”

The news footage of gay marriages helped raise the issue to the status of presidential politics. Bush publicly endorsed a constitutional amendment on gay marriage. The House Republican leadership said it would like to bring an amendment to a vote in the House before year’s end.

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