Washington • Conservatives demanded a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to straight couples in 2003 after the Massachusetts Supreme Court made that liberal state the first to sanction gay marriages.
A decade later, a dozen states have legalized gay marriages and the Supreme Court just ruled that the federal government must recognize those unions.
This time around, conservatives responded with disappointment and calls to protect states’ ability to determine their own marriage laws, but plans for a constitutional amendment have all but evaporated.
The Republican abandonment of a traditional marriage amendment is just one sign of a dramatic and quick shift in public opinion.
“There was a great deal of interest in, and demand for, some kind of action on this,” said former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. “There is absolutely none of that now, so any Republican or Democrats who wants to step forward and say I want to amend the Constitution would not draw enough support to justify introducing it.”
If that’s true, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., hasn’t received the memo.
The tea party Republican was the only lawmaker who reacted to the court’s decision Wednesday to invalidate part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act by promising to introduce a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages.
“A narrow radical majority of the court has substituted their personal views for the constitutional decisions of the American voters and their elected representatives,” Huelskamp told reporters Wednesday.
That amendment is likely to be similar to the one then-President George W. Bush backed in 2004, at the height of his re-election campaign.
“The union of a man and a woman is the most enduring human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith, “ he said at the time.
President Barack Obama is the first chief executive to endorse gay marriage, a step he took before his 2012 re-election.
On Thursday, he not only cheered the court’s ruling on DOMA, he said he personally wanted to see legally married gay couples recognized by states, like Utah, that have blanket bans on the practice.
“It’s my personal belief, but I’m speaking now as a president not as a lawyer, that if you marry someone in Massachusetts and you move somewhere else, you’re still married,” Obama said.
That’s exactly what Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is worried about. He believes it’s possible that the Supreme Court will take up just such a case in the near future and he said voters should keep that in mind when electing the next president, who has the power to nominate justices to the high court.
“I worry the court is moving in the wrong direction,” he said. “I do believe the states should be able to make these decisions and I applaud Utah for having a constitutional provision that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Chaffetz wasn’t excited about launching an effort to change the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage. “I have said I supported that in the past, but I do believe that this is a state issue,” he said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has similarly shifted his position. Like Bennett, Hatch voted to propel the debate over a constitutional amendment in 2006, but recently has shied away from restarting that effort, saying each state should make up its own mind.
His colleague, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he hasn’t heard much discussion about a constitutional amendment, nor has he taken a position on it. “It is not something that has gotten any traction in the past,” he said.
An amendment would need to pass both the House and Senate with two-thirds majority, unlikely with the current partisan splits. It would also need to get the backing of three-fifths of the states.
Lee is a former Supreme Court clerk who said it’s possible the same five justices who shot down DOMA could shoot down state bans and there may be little Congress can plausibly do about it. He had a hard time thinking of anything Republicans could do legislatively to bolster traditional marriage that could pass Congress.
Public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans are fine with legalizing gay marriages. A new CNN poll, conducted in mid-June, found that 55 percent of respondents supported legal recognition of same-sex marriages, similar to what was found in 2012 and 2011.
That’s a fairly sudden shift. The same poll showed that 54 percent opposed gay marriage as recently as 2009.