Federal Marriage Amendment Sees New Life in Congress

On March 23, 2004, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its second hearing on the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA). Many feel that these hearings are a result of conservatives in Congress feeling threatened by the November 2003 decision by the Massachusetts High Court in the case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. In Goodridge, the court ruled that denying civil marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional. This decision was challenged by the Massachusetts State Senate, which wondered whether civil unions would fulfill the court's ruling. In response, the Massachusetts High Court issued a second opinion in February, declaring nothing less than full civil marriage would satisfy the state constitutional standard.

Representative Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO), along with 117 co-sponsors, including Representative Ernest Istook Jr. (R-OK), Representative Joseph Pitts (R-PA), and Representative Dave Weldon (R-FL), introduced the FMA in the House in May 2003. The current wording of the amendment states: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. 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." Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO), along with 13 co-sponsors, including Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), and Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), introduced the same amendment in the Senate in March 2004.

In an interview with the Washington Times, Representative Musgrave stated, "Marriage and family are the most important institutions in existence. Unfortunately, they have come under attack. The traditional values Americans hold are being traded in for counterfeit marital unions. It is important to secure this institution and protect it from distortion."

The Federal Marriage Amendment is supported by a large coalition of conservative and far right organizations, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the Alliance for Marriage. The Alliance for Marriage, founded by Matt Daniels, wrote the FMA proposed by Representative Musgrave and Senator Allard. "The family, built on the union of a male and female, is the foundation of society," Daniels said in a Time magazine interview.

On February 24, 2004, President Bush announced his support for the FMA and asked Congress to pass the amendment. According to President Bush, "Activist courts have left the people with one recourse. If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America."

Amending the Constitution, however, is a long and arduous process. The amendment must pass by a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate and then proceed to the states where three-fourths of the state legislatures must ratify it before it becomes part of the Constitution. Typically, Congress will place a seven year time limit for amendments to be ratified.

On March 3, 2004, The Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Property Rights held its first hearing of the year on the FMA. During his testimony, Hilary Shelton, Director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau, declared, "The Federal Marriage Amendment would, for the first time, use an amendment to the Constitution as a tool of exclusion. … Under no circumstances should the Congress reverse 225 years of constitutional history by using a constitutional amendment to restrict the civil rights of our citizens."

Chuck Muth, President of Citizens Outreach, an organization that supports limited government, quoted Thomas Paine at the hearing:

Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. … The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it.

Muth's testimony continued with, "The point is, it's simply wrong for our generation to presume to dictate via a federal amendment how future generations of Americans address this social policy."

Advocates for LGBTQ rights view the FMA as truly homophobic in nature. "In a country where all people are created equal," said Cheryl Jacques, President of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), "it is intellectually dishonest and deeply unfair that some people cannot have the legal rights and protections for their relationships that most others take for granted, and that all families need."

As legal limbo remains over the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses in California, Oregon, New York, and New Jersey, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a second meeting on March 23 entitled, "A Proposed Constitutional Amendment to Preserve Traditional Marriage." The committee requested testimony from a myriad of members of Congress and professionals, including Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), an openly gay Congressman, and Representative Musgrave. The hearing has yet to be followed with further Senate Committee action. However, days after the Senate hearing, the House Judiciary Committee held its first FMA hearing of the year. For now, the FMA remains stagnant in both Judiciary Committees, and its fate in Congress is uncertain.

More information at Alliance for Marriage.

More information at HRC.

More information at Representative Musgrave's website.

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