February 24, 2004

WASHINGTON (AP) - President George W. Bush backed a U.S. constitutional amendment banning gay marriage Tuesday, saying he wants to stop activist judges from changing the definition of the ``most enduring human institution.''

Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural and moral roots, Bush said, urging Congress to approve such an amendment.

``After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and millenia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization,'' the president said. ``Their action has created confusion on an issue that requires clarity.''

Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said in advance of Bush's announcement that the president wanted to end ``growing confusion'' that has arisen from court decisions in Massachusetts, and San Francisco's permitting more than 3,000 same sex unions.

``The president believes it is important to have clarity,'' he said. ``There is widespread support in this country for protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage.''

McClellan said Bush believes that legislation for such an amendment, submitted by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave,``meets his principles'' in protecting the ``sanctity of marriage'' between men and women.

But Bush did not specifically embrace any particular piece of legislation in his announcement. White House officials have said that support for Musgrave's proposed amendment has been unraveling in the Senate.

Bush decided to take action partly because the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that it is unconstitutional to bar gay couples from marriage. That decision could result in gay weddings there as early as May, McClellan said. ``We're two months away,'' he said.

McClellan said 38 states have passed laws protecting the ``sanctity of marriage and the president will call on Congress to move quickly to pass legislation that can then be sent to the states for ratification.

``We need to act now,'' he said. ``The constitutional process will take time.''

With the announcement, Bush is wading into a volatile social issue. The conservative wing of his party has been anxious for Bush to follow up his rhetoric on the issue with action. In recent weeks, Bush has repeatedly said he was ``troubled'' by the Massachusetts court decision and the gay marriages in San Francisco, but stopped short of endorsing a constitutional amendment.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that it is unconstitutional to bar gay couples from marriage. Gay and lesbian couples from Europe and couples from more than 20 states have flocked to San Francisco City Hall since city officials decided to begin marrying same-sex couples a few days ago. At the current pace, more than 3,200 people will have taken vows by Monday promising to be ``spouses for life.''

At least 38 states and the federal government have approved laws or amendments barring the recognition of gay marriage; last week, the Utah House gave final legislative approval to a measure outlawing same-sex marriages and sent it to the governor, who has not taken a position on the bill.

Musgrave's proposed amendment would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Conservatives have been saying for a month that the White House had quietly assured them that Bush would take the step he was announcing on Tuesday.

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