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  • Sasha Issenberg

February 24, 2004: George W. Bush endorses Federal Marriage Amendment

ON THIS DAY IN 2004…


President George W. Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the United States.


The first such amendment had consisted of two sentences that began “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman,” the work of a group of prominent conservative lawyers and legal theorists brought together by the newly launched Alliance for Marriage. “Let’s challenge the homosexual movement to play fair on the playing field of democracy,” the alliance’s founder, Matt Daniels, said as he unveiled the Federal Marriage Amendment in July 2001. “If they want the benefits of marriage allocated to a wider circle of groups, they need to convince the majority of people that it’s the right thing.” But even as some rank-and-file representatives of both parties embraced Daniels’s amendment, Republican congressional leadership saw little reason to take up the proposal.


That changed in the summer of 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down Texas’s ban on sodomy, ruling in Lawrence v. Texas that moral disapproval of homosexuality could not be used to justify such a violation of individual privacy. Social conservatives feared the same logic could be applied to invalidate state laws that excluded gays and lesbians from marriage, as well as the Defense of Marriage Act enacted by Congress seven years earlier. In November 2003, Massachusetts’s top appellate court made it the first state to declare same-sex couples had a right to wed under the state constitution, leaving a federal ban as the only remaining hedge against further action by state courts.


Even as religious conservatives, led by the Arlington Group of largely evangelical activists, successfully persuaded congressional Republicans of the new urgency, the White House resisted their entreaties to endorse the amendment. In February 2004, however, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to begin marrying couples despite a four-year-old state law banning it, action that was quickly mimicked by renegade municipal officials in Oregon, New Mexico and upstate New York. Those events brought marriage to the forefront of national discussion, increasing pressure on the president, as he acknowledged on February 18. “I have watched carefully what’s happening in San Francisco, where licenses were being issued, even though the law states otherwise,” Bush told reporters after an Oval Office meeting with Tunisia’s president. “I have consistently stated that I’ll support law to protect marriage between a man and a woman. Obviously these events are influencing my decision.”


On February 24, Bush gave a speech at the White House to lay out the steps he thought federal officials should take to deal with same-sex marriage. “There is no assurance that the Defense of Marriage Act will not be itself struck down by activist courts. In that event, every state would be forced to recognize any relationship that judges in Boston or officials in San Francisco choose to call a marriage,” Bush said. “Furthermore, even if the Defense of Marriage Act is upheld, the law does not protect marriage within any state or city. For this reason, the defense of marriage requires a constitutional amendment.”


Bush’s support would ensure that the Federal Marriage Amendment got a vote on the floor of the Senate that summer, and that marriage would be an issue in his campaign for a second term.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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