VOLUME 3, ISSUE 344 | October 28 – November 3, 2004
Last Minute Nod to the Middle
Bush suddenly voices receptiveness to states enacting civil union legislation
In an apparent break with the far right wing of his party, Pres. George W. Bush told ABC’s “Good Morning America,” that he continues to oppose gay marriage, but that the states should be free to create civil unions.
“I don’t think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that’s what a state chooses to do,” Bush said during an interview that aired on October 26. “States ought to be able to have the right to pass laws that enable people to be able to have rights like others.”
That position puts the president at odds with the Republican Party platform which backed the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) and called for a ban on civil unions and domestic partnerships. The platform was crafted by the party’s most conservative elements.
According to The New York Times on October 26 Bush was reminded on “Good Morning America” that the platform opposed civil unions and he replied, “Well, I don’t.”
Bush was asked, “So the Republican platform on that point, as far as you’re concerned, is wrong?” and he said “Right,” according to The Times’s transcript of the show.
When Bush announced his support for the FMA earlier this year, he made similar comments.
“The amendment should fully protect marriage, while leaving the state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage,” the president said on February 24 though he has not always made this distinction when discussing the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Whether the FMA would allow civil unions or domestic partnerships is an open question. Some supporters claim it would. Other supporters want language that explicitly bans them.
Some opponents of the constitutional amendment say that the plain language of the proposal bars all legal arrangements protecting same-sex couples, including marriage which would be restricted to one man and one woman.
The FMA reads “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.”
The use of “legal incidents thereof” could be interpreted to mean that no state or the federal government may be required to give any right or benefit of marriage to “unmarried couples or groups.”
A constitutional amendment must be approved by two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate, and then ratified by three-fourths of the states’ legislatures. The amendment was defeated, by wide margins, in the House on September 28 and in the Senate on July 12.
Gay groups saw the president’s statement as little more than an effort to win the support of swing voters one week before the election by portraying Bush as a moderate.
“His credibility on election eve is just not there,” said Steven Fisher, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest gay lobbying group.
“The policies he has been pushing for the past four years completely contradict what he said. He has been pushing discrimination for the past four years.”
HRC endorsed Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, in June. Kerry opposes gay marriage, but he also opposes the FMA and he supports civil unions. On an October 25 conference call with 1,200 African-American ministers, Kerry reiterated his opposition to gay marriage. The call came as at least some polls indicated that Bush might have improved his standing among black voters, a group from which he garnered only eight percent of the vote in 2000.
Gay groups, including HRC, say the FMA would bar civil unions and domestic partnerships so the president’s position is seen as contradictory.
“How can anyone be for civil unions and an amendment that would ban civil unions?” Fisher said. “This was a desperate, last-minute attempt to appeal to swing voters. He has supported an effort to put discrimination into the constitution. The voters he is trying to appeal to will see through that.”
The Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), a gay Republican group, made no endorsement in the presidential race, in part, because of Bush’s support for the FMA. They said that the opposition to gay marriage was a campaign strategy meant to build support for Bush among social conservatives. These latest comments are a repudiation of that strategy.
“The president’s comments are a public recognition that Karl Rove and the radical right strategy of using gay and lesbian families as a wedge issue in this campaign is not working,” said Patrick Guerriero, LCR’s executive director, in a press statement.
Christopher Barron, LCR’s political director, said that Bush must change his position on the FMA. “The problem is he is supporting a constitutional amendment that flies in the face of his support for civil unions,” he said.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task force (NGLTF), said the president’s comments were “meaningless’ given his FMA support and his party’s support for state constitutional amendments that would ban gay marriage.
NGLTF does not make endorsements in election races.
“It’s a rehashing of things that he said before, but it’s meaningless because he and his party are actively pushing amendments to the federal and state constitutions which would preclude the recognition of civil unions,” Foreman said.