Early reaction among the religious right to comments by President Bush that he would not push for a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage appeared muted, despite high expectations prior to re-election that Bush would lead the fight for traditional marriage.

“Senators have made it clear that so long as [the Defense of Marriage Act] is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen,” Bush said in an interview aboard Air Force One with the Washington Post. “I’d take their admonition seriously…. Until that changes, nothing will happen in the Senate.”

White House spokesmen later said the president still supports an amendment but doesn’t believe enough support exists in the Senate for passage unless courts first declare the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, said Bush’s comments sounded “defeatist.”

“They certainly made it sound like it wasn’t a priority of the administration,” he said, “and I don’t understand that because it was a major factor in his re-election.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said he doesn’t understand the president’s comments, either. Perkins said he believed a marriage amendment is a winning issue.

“The president, I don’t think, would be expending political capital to deal with this issue,” Perkins said. “In fact, I think far less capital would be spent on addressing the issue of marriage than Social Security reform or tort reform, which there’s not been a popular outcry from the American public for.”

The president is willing to spend his political capital on Social Security reform, but the nation is greatly divided on that issue,” Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, told the Washington Post. “The nation is united on marriage. The president’s leadership is desperately needed.”

Other conservative Christians gave Bush the benefit of the doubt.

Janet LaRue of Concerned Women for America said Bush was simply speaking of the realities of a divided Senate. “I think he was speaking practically about the fact that there are senators who are waiting to see whether the federal Defense of Marriage Act is struck down by a court,” she told the Washington Post, describing that position as “foolish.”

LaRue’s matter-of-fact attitude contrasted to campaign and post-election rhetoric labeling a gay-marriage ban a linchpin in Bush’s appeal to the religious right.

“The faith factor was the difference in this election,” Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press in November.

Earlier Land said gay marriage was one reason why the 2004 election was the most important in his lifetime and the main reason his agency launched its iVoteValues.com voter registration and awareness effort.

Land said in an interview for a PBS “Frontline” show which aired last spring that same-sex marriage is the most important issue since abortion to galvanize conservative evangelicals in the Southern Baptist Convention.

“We want a federal marriage amendment to keep the judiciary from forcing a secularist agenda on this country that this country does not want in the area of marriage,” Land said. “The only way to protect ourselves from that, given the current power of the judiciary, is to trump the judiciary by passing an amendment to the Constitution, which is aimed like a rifle–not a shotgun, but a rifle–at same-sex unions: A federal marriage amendment which would say that nothing in this Constitution or in any state constitution shall be construed as requiring marriage as anything other than between a man and a woman.”

The SBC in June passed a resolution supporting a federal marriage amendment and commending the president for his statements in support of such an amendment. Fifteen Baptist state conventions this fall approved resolutions defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

The ERLC recently included support for a marriage amendment as part of its legislative agenda in 2005.
Land said Wednesday in Baptist Press that Bush gave an accurate description of the outlook in the Senate but nonetheless made a “tactical mistake” with his remarks.

“I have no doubt that the president is firmly committed to a marriage protection amendment,” Land said. “In his interview, he was giving an accurate description of the current legislation situation, which unfortunately has the tactical result of giving senators who don’t want to vote on this an excuse.”

Land said the president “needs to shore up any doubts that some may have about his commitment to this issue by using the bully pulpit of the presidency … to make it clear that he’s not only committed to it, but it’s a high priority. This is extremely important because without the president’s strong support it will not be possible to get the required two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate.”

A Chicago Tribune editorial suggested Bush has cooled on the issue because winning a two-thirds majority in the Senate would require a major lobbying effort, and he wants to save his political capital for other battles, like Social Security reform and the war in Iraq.

Politics also played a role, the newspaper opined. Now that he’s been re-elected, Bush doesn’t need an issue to rally conservatives. There also is now less urgency about the issue than last winter when cities were issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples contrary to state laws.

Syndicated columnist Clarence Page called the president’s statement a “political U-turn.”

Pro-gay supporters of the president applauded the remarks. “[We are] hopeful that the president’s comments recognizing the lack of support for the anti-family Federal Marriage Amendment will result in a second-term agenda that can concentrate on much-needed reform,” said Patrick Guerriero, the president of Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest gay republican group.

The Log Cabin Republicans did not endorse Bush in the November election but now support key elements of the president’s reform agenda.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for gay and lesbian Americans and our allies to play a key role in the important debates on Capitol Hill and to benefit from the enactment of many Republican reform proposals,” Guerriero said in a press release.

Meanwhile, another gay-rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, prepared to release a report showing that lawmakers who supported gay marriage were re-elected at “phenomenal rates” across the nation in November.

The study found that fewer than 2 percent of 640 legislators in 28 states were voted out of office for opposing measures banning same-sex marriages.

The group said the findings should help dispel widespread speculation that gay marriage was “one of the key moral issues driving voting behavior in 2004.”

The Human Rights Campaign also launched an ad campaign to coincide with President Bush’s inauguration underscoring what the group calls inconsistencies in what Bush has said about equal rights for gays and lesbians.

“The administration’s most recent backtracking on using the Constitution as a tool for discrimination was another reminder of the president’s inconsistency,” HRC Political Director Winnie Stachelberg said on a gay-rights Web site. “We’ll continue to work to oppose an amendment that would hurt millions of Americans and their families.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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