Bush: States shouldn't change marriage
President stops short of endorsing amendment
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has addressed the contentious topic of same-sex marriage in his annual speech to the nation, saying, "our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage."
He stopped short of endorsing a constitutional amendment that would ban marriages for gay and lesbian couples, as social conservative groups had hoped.
Instead, Bush said, "if judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process."
The president's comments, made during his State of the Union speech, said the issue stems from "activist judges" who have "begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people."
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that the state "failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason" to prohibit same-sex marriages, and gave the state Legislature six months to rewrite the marriage laws for the benefit of gay and lesbian couples.
That has raised fears among conservatives that other states might be required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts, as states now routinely recognize heterosexual marriages performed in other states.
After a court in Hawaii struck down a ban on same-sex marriages in 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which President Clinton signed into law.
Bush noted the law in his address and, in a move not typical for the president, mentioned Clinton by name.
The law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and barred federal recognition of same-sex unions performed in any state.
Hawaii voters later amended their state constitution to overturn the court's decision.
At least 37 states followed suit with their own defense of marriage acts, refusing to recognize same-sex unions performed in other states.
But supporters of same-sex marriage say such laws are unconstitutional because the "full faith and credit" clause of the Constitution requires states to recognize one another's legal proceedings.
They also point to a 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws banning interracial marriages.
Some social conservatives, afraid courts might strike down defense of marriage acts, want to amend the U.S. Constitution to explicitly allow states to refuse to perform or recognize same-sex marriages.
White House lawyers have been studying the legal implications of the Massachusetts decision in light of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and a possible constitutional amendment.
To the dismay of some social conservatives, Bush has so far not endorsed an amendment.
Bush's comments Tuesday fell short of an endorsement, and instead characterized an amendment as a possible course of action.
Bush also attempted to keep his comments on the point of same-sex marriage and away from the broader subject of civil rights for gay and lesbians.
"A strong America must also value the institution of marriage," he said. "I believe we should respect individuals as we take a principled stand for one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization."
Before changing topics, Bush said, "The outcome of this debate is important -- and so is the way we conduct it. The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God's sight."
In an October 2000 debate, vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney said the issue should be left to the states to resolve.
"I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate. I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area," said Cheney, who is now vice president.
"People should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to," said Cheney, whose daughter, Mary, is a lesbian. "Should these relationships be treated the way traditional marriage is? That is a tougher problem. I try to be open-minded as much as I can."
Bush opposed the notion of same-sex marriage during a presidential debate the same year.
In July 2003, Bush said he wanted to "codify" his belief that marriage should be limited to unions between a man and a woman. A spokesman said a constitutional amendment was being debated.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has said he believes the Defense of Marriage Act provides enough protection for the definition of marriage and that an amendment is not necessary.
Same-sex marriage has the support of none of the major Democratic presidential candidates, including Howard Dean, who as governor of Vermont signed a bill authorizing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
The candidates are united in opposing a constitutional amendment, and they have expressed varying degrees of support for creating civil unions, which would provide legal rights and recognition to same-sex couples that are similar to marriage.
CNN's John King and Dana Bash contributed to this report.