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Burress Sticks Nose into Gay Marriage Issue

WASHINGTON – If [Citizens for Community Values] Phil Burress has his way, Ohio will be a battleground this fall for more than just the presidential candidates. It will be the scene of a moral struggle over the future of marriage, an institution on the front lines of the “culture war” that some conservatives want to wage in this election year.

Burress, a conservative activist in Cincinnati, is laboring to put before Ohio’s voters a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. If he succeeds, Ohio will become one of about a dozen states where this issue has been muscled onto the November ballot.

Conservatives are pushing hard for state action in part because the issue is falling flat in Congress. Although the Senate began discussion Friday of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, it almost certainly will not pass.

But same-sex marriage is roiling the politics of many states and could influence the outcome of the presidential election. Republican strategists hope – and Democratic strategists fear – that the presence of anti-gay-marriage initiatives on the ballots of swing states such as Michigan and Oregon will boost turnout among conservative voters and improve President Bush’s chances of winning crucial electoral-college votes.

Just in the past month, activists in four states – Montana, Oregon, Arkansas and Michigan – have gathered enough petition signatures to force a vote in November on marriage amendments to their state constitutions. Five other states had already put the issue on their November ballots; two more will vote on amendments before then.

Those state petition drives are welcome successes for conservatives, who say they have found it surprisingly difficult to light a fire at the federal level for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Conservatives seized on the issue because they view same-sex marriage as an affront to the sanctity of a fundamental social institution – and as a political issue that could be as potent an organizing tool as the fight against abortion has been.

Although public-opinion polls show that a majority of Americans oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriage, there is less support for amending the Constitution to ban it. What is more, polls show that only a minority of voters consider the issue a top priority.

Many people had not even considered the question until a Massachusetts court five months ago thrust it on to the national agenda by ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry.

“People on the street in Los Angeles or Sacramento don’t necessarily realize the significance of what’s happening in the courts,” said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, a group leading the fight for a federal constitutional amendment. Same-sex marriage is so far removed from most peoples’ lives, Daniels said, that “people are not thinking about this.”

But same-sex marriage remains a potent political issue because the segment of the population that is concerned about it cares so intensely, said GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

“This is one of the three or four issues that will define this election cycle,” he said. The issue may rouse potential Bush supporters who need an extra shove out the door on Election Day. These include conservatives who have been disillusioned by parts of Bush’s record, such as his big increase in federal spending, as well as the millions of Christian conservatives who did not vote in the 2000 elections.

“In rural areas or exurbia where there may be voters who have some disappointment with Bush, either on the budget deficit or other things, this is the kind of thing that will drive them to the polls – to his benefit,” said Gary Bauer, a conservative leader.

Gay-rights activists say the fact that Republicans are pushing the marriage amendment to a vote in Congress when there is no hope of it passing makes clear that the issue is simply a political gesture to appease conservatives.

“You can see what their raw agenda is,” said Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group that supports same-sex marriage. “President Bush believes this will mobilize his extreme-right base.”

Gay-rights organizations are urging their members to become involved at the state and federal levels. “Bush and his political team are playing with fire,” Jacques said. “They awoke a sleeping giant. The gay community is more activated and galvanized than ever before.”

But some analysts and congressional staff say the more intense lobbying pressure seems to be coming from the right.

“We have received a lot of calls, and phone volume is heavy against gay marriage,” said Scott Milburn, spokesman for Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio.

People promoting marriage amendments in Congress and the states deny they are doing so simply to help Bush, but few dispute that they expect it to redound to his political benefit.

Bush has called several times, as recently as Saturday, for a federal constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. His Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has said he opposes same-sex marriage but does not want to amend the Constitution to ban it.

In 1996, Kerry was one of 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Despite that act, Bush has said a constitutional amendment is needed, because the federal law does not “protect marriage within any state or city” and because it could be struck down by “activist courts.”

Some analysts question whether this year’s initiatives will have much impact on voter turnout, if only because turnout is already expected to be high due to intense interest in the presidential race.

In Oregon, a key presidential swing state and one where a marriage initiative will be on the ballot, turnout typically is as high as 80 percent in a presidential election year, said Tim Hibbits, an independent pollster in Portland.

With the state’s economy ranking among the worst in the country, Hibbits said, marriage may not be the first thing on voters’ minds. But if voting on same-sex marriage helps anyone, it will benefit Bush, he said.

In Michigan, pollster Ed Sarpolus said that the vote on a marriage amendment this fall may bring out more conservative Republicans, who would vote for Bush, in the closely contested state. But it may also bring out some Catholic Democrats who, though conservative on social issues, are not necessarily Bush supporters.

For activists on both sides of the issue, the challenge in Congress and around the country is to get the attention of the vast majority of the people who are still trying to figure out their stance on the issue or who do not feel particularly strongly about it.

“People are disturbed by the idea of same sex-marriage, but right now it’s just an attitude and not something they are acting on,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who has written on religion and politics. “It’s the job of activists to turn those attitudes into votes.”

 

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