by Michelle Goldberg

The Christian right is getting ready for a renewed culture war over homosexuality, but it's still working on the battle plan. A series of gay-rights victories in the past few weeks has left social conservatives appalled, apoplectic and not quite sure how to respond. Yet their anger and energy have to go somewhere, and some conservatives are determined to find a way to inject the issue into the 2004 election -- and force candidates to take sides.

For many cultural conservatives, the recent series of gay-rights victories -- Canada's legalization of same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court's striking down of sodomy laws in Lawrence vs. Texas, Wal-Mart's announcement that it would expand its anti-discrimination policy to cover gay workers -- are a juggernaut that has caught them off guard. Another big gay-rights win is expected later this month, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rules on Goodridge et al. vs. Department of Public Health, a case involving eight same-sex couples arguing their right to marry. Most court watchers on both the left and the right expect the court to rule in favor of the couples, making Massachusetts the first state in the union where gay marriage is legal.

"We're all expecting something scandalous to happen in Massachusetts this month," says right-wing doyenne Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum.

Judging by some rhetoric on the right, all this portends America's moral dissolution. The conservative group Concerned Women for America sent two writers to San Francisco's Gay Pride parade, where they reported on the bacchanal in lascivious detail and wrote, "If Mr. Bush and other Republican leaders had taken a detour on Sunday to Market Street in this 'gay' mecca, they might have gotten a glimpse of what lies ahead if their party (or America) fully embraces homosexuality." Speaking in more measured tones, Glenn Stanton, senior analyst for marriage and sexuality at Focus on the Family, says, "What is stunning about this is that we are seeing very dramatic and radical social change happen within our nation within a very quick period of time without the benefit of any real honest, critical, rigorous public debate."

But the right hasn't yet figured out how to force such a debate. "They were taken by surprise, and they realize that Bush can't give them the solution, so they're going to be confused for a while," says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Boston who studies the Christian right. "There have to be biblical references looked up and people have to think about it and pray about it, and then they have to have a strategy meeting."

Looking for an Issue -- Until recently, conservative strategy was to focus on the Supreme Court, hoping to pressure President Bush into nominating a hard-right judge to fill the vacancy many were expecting to open this summer. A series of articles in right-wing publications attacked White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, widely seen as a likely Supreme Court candidate, for being insufficiently doctrinaire. Schlafly even suggested that if Bush didn't give conservatives a judge they liked, they might refuse to vote for him. "An appointment to the Supreme Court vacancy will be the acid test," she said. "The president should know that his main constituency who elected him are the people who want a change in the court."

If Bush nominates someone who doesn't satisfy them, she says, "they're just going to stay home."

Now, however, it looks increasingly unlikely that any of the Supreme Court's nine justices are going to step down this year, since traditionally retirements are announced in the last week of June. That would spare Bush a nomination fight -- and leave the right without an obvious next battle. "On the conservative side they want to push back, but I don't think anybody's in a position today to say this is the war plan," says Gary Aldrich, a former FBI agent who vaulted into the right-wing pantheon with his anti-Clinton expos & eacute; Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside the Clinton White House, followed by the recent Ann Coulteresque Thunder on the Left.

At least one prominent right-winger, National Review Online columnist Jonah Goldberg, has advised his comrades to accept defeat and move on. "The challenge for social conservatives, it seems to me, is to make the best of what they consider a bad situation," he wrote in a June 20 column on "But that would require making some painful capitulations -- intellectual, moral, philosophical and financial. It would also require gay activists to understand that they've won and that the best course of action for them would be magnanimity in victory. Unfortunately, this is all unlikely since both camps are in denial about how far gays have come."

Social conservatives, though, say surrender is not an option. Unlike Goldberg, they believe that American culture is still on their side, even if hated elites and interest groups have conspired to trample their cherished values. "There's this great middle America, and they have basic common-sense sort of values," says Stanton. "This is one of the issues that speaks to that." In particular, he says, opposition to gay marriage "is a political winner."

Constitutional Solution? -- Some have decided that if they can't change the court, they should change the Constitution. Major religious-right groups like Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition are putting their energy into a push for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual union. "The next battle will be the federal marriage amendment sponsored by Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave [R-Colo.]," says Jim Backlin, director of legislative affairs at the Christian Coalition.

The proposed amendment would do more than just prohibit gay marriage -- it would deny the "legal incidents" of marriage to all other couples. Thus it would negate state laws providing civil unions for gays, since such laws give gay couples whatever benefits the state (though not the federal government) provides to married people.

Backlin believes that there are enough votes in the House to garner the two-thirds needed for constitutional change, and he's also confident backers can get the necessary three-quarters of the states to ratify it. That leaves the Senate, where Republicans have only a slim majority, as a battleground. "It might require one more election," Backlin says.

Of course, there's already a federal law prohibiting same-sex marriage -- the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Clinton in 1996. (It's also worth noting that many prominent Democrats, including New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, oppose gay marriage, but support civil unions.) But Stanton worries that the Lawrence precedent means the Defense of Marriage Act won't survive a Supreme Court challenge. "That's why we need to be very clear at the constitutional level about what marriage is," he says.

Amendment backers got a boost last month when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist endorsed the change. But Wednesday, Bush hedged. Asked about the amendment, Bush said, "I don't know if it's necessary yet. Let's let the lawyers look at the full ramifications of the recent Supreme Court hearing." He nodded to his base, saying, "What I do support is a notion that marriage is between a man and a woman."

Such a stance is a safe one for the president, because even on the right, there's no consensus about the amendment. "Honestly, I don't think we need any congressional legislation," says Schlafly. "The [Defense of Marriage Act] addresses the main points." Adds Aldrich, "I don't think conservatives really believe that a constitutional amendment is the route to take under these circumstances."

That doesn't mean Bush is off the hook. Schlafly and others may not have an initiative they want the president to get behind, but they ardently want him to speak out. "If Massachusetts hands down a same-sex marriage decision, it will be a great disappointment if the president does not come out loud and clear and make a strong statement that we are not going to tolerate this," she says.

But there are other forces in the Republican Party pushing Bush in a different direction. During a debate with Sen. Joe Lieberman during the 2000 campaign, Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter, said states should be allowed to legalize civil unions. Libertarians and prominent gay Republicans like Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona would also likely be alienated if Bush lets himself be enlisted in an anti-gay crusade.

Stanton isn't interested in the political difficulties that gay issues create for Bush -- he says the president's reputation as a leader is at stake. "What motivates voters is a leader who does not play the zero-sum game and just keep quiet. Voters rally around a leader who explains why things matter. Bush did that so wonderfully after 9/11. I think he needs to do the same sort of thing here."

Yet Berlet of Political Research Associates says Bush is unlikely to satisfy all of the religious right's demands. "What they want and what Bush can give them are two different things," he says. "Look at Reagan. He's a hero to the Christian right, but he never delivered on prayer in school, he never delivered on banning abortion. Bush has a coalition government of libertarians, militarists, the Christian right and business interests. He's got to figure out how he can use rhetoric skillfully to sound like he's responding to the Christian right, while not giving them so much that other parts of his constituency flip out."

How well he finesses it will determine whether he can keep his moderate fans while still turning out his foot soldiers in November 2004.

Publication date: 07/10/03

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