Conservative Christian leaders, less than satisfied with President Bush's public statements on gay marriage, have been looking for a "trigger"-an event that would force the president to back a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual institution. On Wednesday, they seemed to get it.

Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court backed up its November decision calling laws against gay marriage unconstitutional with a new opinion today, telling the state senate that civil unions similar to Vermont's would not satisfy its mandate. Separate but equal treatment for some populations, the opinion pointed out, had not worked in the past.

Many conservatives now expect President Bush to come out strongly in support of a constitutional amendment on marriage (though he did not, as many expected, during his talk at Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast in Washington). "The President has been looking for an appropriate trigger, and this is it as far as I'm concerned," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a Bush administration associate. "I've never seen anything that has energized our base like this has."

Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer said Wednesday that he and other conservative Christians had received word from the White House that "the president is now prepared to officially endorse a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman." Bauer said the formal announcement was "forthcoming."

He added: "I cannot overstate the importance of the president's support for this effort . With the "bully pulpit" of the White House fully engaged, I believe our chances for success have greatly improved--and this news could not have come at a better time."

It isn't clear whether the White House is as gung-ho on the topic of gay marriage as conservative Christians like to think. On Wednesday, The White House described the ruling as "deeply troubling" and the kind of meddling by "activist" judges President Bush warned about in his State of the Union speech. During the address last month, Bush said if such rulings continue, a constitutional amendment may be needed. Yet he stopped short of an outright endorsement, which many observers took to mean that Bush was trying to appease conservative voters while not alienating moderates.

The political calculation is tricky. Polls consistently show Americans opposed to gay marriage, but nervous about a constitutional amendment. Support for a marriage amendment could help get Bush's base to the polls in November. On the other hand, supporting an amendment in an election year could make the president look too conservative in the eyes of Independent voters.

Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday that the president is "firmly committed to protecting and defending" marriage--defined as between a man and a woman.

Bush has flirted with partisans on both sides on the issue, saying in a December television interview that the Massachusetts court had "overreached its bounds." But he infuriated conservatives by adding that "the position of this administration is that, you know, whatever legal arrangements people want to make, they're allowed to make, so long as it's embraced by the state."

According to conservative activist Charles Colson, Bush stated his unequivocal support this past weekend for a proposed version of a constitutional amendment known as the Musgrave Amendment. It reads: "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."

Meanwhile, a variety of conservative groups weighed in on Wednesday as the news of the Massachusetts decision broke. The Arlington Group, a coalition of more than 20 conservative Christian organizations, said in a statement that "a federal marriage amendment is absolutely necessary. Congress must immediately pass it."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said Wednesday's decision will "determine the future of marriage throughout America. .This decision leaves no doubt that we must, immediately, pass a federal marriage amendment."

No matter how the Bush Administration deals with the present legal jujitsu, the fight over a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage will likely consume much of the nation's political debate this year and beyond. Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, told the conservative weekly Human Events that the issue will be a "litmus test" for politicians at all levels. "We will ask them how they feel about homosexual marriage and civil unions. And we will start running people in the grassroots level that will take a stand on this issue.

"And," Rios added, "we will replace our weaker brothers who are not willing to take a stand and then we bring this to a vote."

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