Pew response puzzles gay union foes

Lack of traction frustrates supporters of federal ban on same-sex marriages


Just four months after an alliance of conservative Christians was threatening a churchgoer revolt unless President Bush championed an amendment banning same-sex marriage, members say they have been surprised and disappointed by what they call a tepid response from the pews.

Most of the groups supporting the proposed federal constitutional amendment concede that it appears all but dead in Congress for this election year.

As Massachusetts prepares to become the first state in the nation to allow same-sex marriage tomorrow, several high-profile conservatives say they are pinning their hopes mainly on reaction to events there, betting that scenes of gay weddings in Provincetown may set off a public outcry around the country.

In a last effort to publicize their cause before the impending wave of same-sex marriages, conservative Christian groups are organizing an emergency telecast to churches around the country, bringing black clergy members to Washington to lobby the Congressional Black Caucus, and sending members of a group for people who say they are formerly gay to make the rounds of Capitol Hill as well.

Still, the opponents of gay marriage say they are puzzling over why such a volatile cultural issue is not spurring more rank-and-file conservative Christians to rise up in support of the amendment. They are especially frustrated, they say, because opinion polls show that a large majority of voters oppose gay marriage.

"Our side is basically asleep right now," Matt Daniels, founder of the Alliance for Marriage, which helped draft the proposed amendment, said in an interview last week.

The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, said: "I don't see any traction. The calls aren't coming in, and I am not sure why."

Some conservatives warn that the Christian leaders rallying behind the amendment may now face a loss of credibility. Their influence with evangelical believers is a subject of keen interest in Washington, in part because the Bush campaign has made ensuring their turnout at the polls a priority.

"The danger from the beginning was that if you make your stand on the amendment and you don't win, then you may have undercut your position," said Richard Lessner, the executive director of the American Conservative Union and a former official of the Family Research Council, a Christian conservative group. "They have staked so much on it, they have put all these eggs in one basket and now they are going to lose."

Gay rights groups argue that social conservatives in Washington overestimated the level of anxiety about gay marriage among their supporters. "Other issues are far more important to most Americans, including evangelicals - issues like the economy, jobs, health care, the war in Iraq," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The amendment's backers contend that the reason people are not responding more vocally is that many grass-roots conservatives do not yet understand how same-sex marriages affect them personally. Although gay groups argue that same-sex marriages involve only the couple marrying, many Christian conservative leaders argue that recognizing such marriages will undermine cultural support for traditional families.

The amendment's backers say that they always knew approval by Congress would be difficult, but that they had expected to get far enough that every candidate in the country would have to take a position on it in the fall.

But although the amendment is bogged down, some opponents of same-sex marriage say they see evidence of support for their cause at the state level.

Some noted that Ohio, a traditional swing state, recently passed a law blocking not only same-sex marriage but also civil unions. And five states that are considered reliably conservative - Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah - have put state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage on the November ballot.

"The thing that we keep focusing on is, there is no place that people have voted for same-sex marriage," said Gary L. Bauer, a social conservative who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Bauer, the founder of the organization American Values, pointed out that it was a court that ordered Massachusetts to recognize same-sex marriage.

Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, called the ballot initiatives a political stunt, which she said was "all about the president energizing his base and dividing and conquering in this election," adding that "gay and lesbian people are just being used as pawns."

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