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15 votes short

Marriage | Activism for the Federal Marriage Amendment seems lagging as Senate backers seek supporters before a July 12 vote

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

For the past four Sundays, Ken Keeley, a married man, has had a date both before and after church-a date with potential voters. Between services, the retired businessman has posted himself in the expansive sky-lit atrium of Beaverton Christian Church in Beaverton, Ore. His mission: to help Oregon's Defense of Marriage Coalition gather enough signatures to put a constitutional marriage-protection amendment on the state's November ballot.

Mr. Keeley's never been much of an activist, he said, but the recent attacks on traditional marriage have fired him up. People in his 2,000-member church seem fired up, too: "They're eager to sign [the petition]," he said. "When they see it, they say things like, 'It's about time!'"

Some Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) supporters had precisely the same reaction when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) finally scheduled debate on the national measure for July 12. Political opponents challenged Mr. Frist's timing, suggesting that he purposely shoehorned what is certain to be an explosive, chamber-dividing debate onto the Senate calendar just before the Democratic National Convention, when Sen. John Kerry is officially nominated as the party's nominee for president.

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Sen. Frist denied that motivation. Although he did note that Sen. Kerry was one of only 14 senators to vote against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the majority leader explained that the clock is ticking down on the current Congress. "I only have 42 legislative days left and about 17 different bills to pass. Therefore I need to plan out my 42 days."

For amendment supporters, passing the FMA in the next 42 days will require changing at least 15 minds. Congressional staffers say the measure, which would amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, is at least that many "yes" votes short of the 67 it needs to pass.

Meanwhile, more than a third of Americans have never even heard of FMA, according to a Barna Research study released June 21. That poll, which surveyed 1,618 adults, also showed public opinion almost evenly split on the FMA: 46 percent of respondents for and 44 percent against, with 10 percent undecided. That differs from a recent Wirthlin Poll that showed strong public support for the FMA.

If true, the lack of public awareness revealed in the Barna study may explain the citizen silence on Capitol Hill. Conservatives had predicted that after the Massachusetts Supreme Court created a right to same-sex marriage, and San Francisco officials sponsored a gay-nuptial fest in defiance of California law, Americans would bombard Congress with letters, phone calls, and e-mails of protest.

That didn't happen. The Barna report attempts to explain why: "Although few Americans are homosexual, and most adults believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman, many Americans believe that this is a 'gray area' of morality that is best left without tight legal definitions." Even many self-identified born-again Christians, the report notes, are not convinced that their definition of marriage should be included in the federal Constitution.

State constitutions are another matter, however. Like Ken Keeley in Oregon, conservatives have been busy with state-level marriage-protection measures in Oregon, Michigan, Arkansas, Montana, Ohio, and Arizona.

Arkansas activists have already gathered more signatures than they needed to meet a July 2 deadline for a ballot measure there. Michigan organizers are a third of the way done. And the Montana Family Foundation has gathered more than half of the signatures it needs for a November ballot initiative.

Polls in several states show a majority of voters support amending their constitutions. But without the Federal Marriage Amendment, state action (or inaction) might not even matter.

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