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Gay marriage battle reinvigorates conservatives


Last spring, the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., decided to hold a summit meeting of the Christian conservative movement.

Wildmon felt the movement was losing the culture war, he recalled in an interview on Friday. Since plunging into political activism nearly 30 years ago, Christian conservatives had helped Republicans take control of Washington but did not have enough to show for it, Wildmon said. Meanwhile, the election of ostensibly like-minded Republican politicians had drained some of the motivation out of the grass-roots constituents many advocacy groups depend on for political influence and financial support.

So Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association and a crusader against sex and violence in the media, sent an e-mail message inviting about two dozen other prominent Christian conservatives to a meeting in Arlington, Va., in June. About 14 people turned up with no set agenda, Wildmon recalled.

"All we knew was we were going to get together and see if there were some issues of concern that we could agree on and combine our efforts," Wildmon said.

"The first thing that popped up," he said, "was the federal marriage amendment."

What began with Wildmon's e-mail message soon turned into a concerted campaign for a constitutional amendment blocking gay marriage. Christian conservative leaders say the campaign is helping revitalize their movement. It has given them a rare opportunity to forge potential new alliances with African-American and Hispanic churchgoers. And it promises to reopen the flow of financial contributions to their advocacy groups that had slowed to a trickle when Republicans took over Washington.

"Things have not gone well in the past couple of years," said Paul M. Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation. "The movement had not been gaining members, it has not been winning battles, with the exception of the pro-life issue, and those were marginal battles. This issue has come along and it appears to be turning things around."

Soon after the meeting - held in an apartment complex where Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, has a condominium - the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sweeping decision overturning state sodomy laws. Then in November, a Massachusetts court ruled that gay couples had the right to marry, bringing further attention to the issue.

Despite the Arlington group's efforts, many politicians - even some conservatives and notably President Bush - have been slow to sign on, partly for fear that amending the Constitution to police gay unions might seem intolerant or bigoted, conservative strategists and pollsters have said.

But to many in Wildmon's meeting in Arlington, the situation was urgent.

"Look at our entertainment programs, listen to the music, listen to the statistics about babies born out of wedlock," Wildmon said. "Our team is not winning, not by any stretch of the imagination."

At the same time, attracting new supporters and raising money had grown much more difficult since the departure of their bete noire, Bill Clinton, from the White House, several Christian conservative activists involved in the Arlington meeting acknowledged. "Bill Clinton was a great motivator, and when he left there was a sense of 'OK, our guy is in the White House,'" said Gary L. Bauer, founder of the advocacy group American Values and an early ally in organizing the Arlington meeting.

But in terms of direct mail - the financial lifeblood of most advocacy groups, including many Christian conservative organizations - some in the movement believe opposition to gay marriage will be even more potent than its other great cause, the fight against abortion.

"Abortion has never been a strong direct-mailer," said Richard A. Viguerie, founder of American Target Advertising and the dean of conservative direct mail. "But in my opinion and the opinion of my executives, this is a world-class wedge issue. Every instinct in my body tells me this is going to be a big mailer."

Viguerie said his company expected to send out more than 10 million letters for a host of social conservative groups.

Still, Arlington group members said their concern was morality, not fund raising. "It is not like we have to sit around and decide what is going to motivate our base or help with fund raising," said Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America. "When something is right, that happens on its own."

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has 16 million members, said: "I have never seen anything that has energized and provoked our grass-roots like this issue, including Roe vs. Wade."

Almost as soon as the Arlington meeting began, the discussion turned to a debate over the language of an amendment. For years, the Alliance for Marriage, an ecumenical group, had pushed for a constitutional amendment to prevent courts from forcing states or the country to recognize same-sex marriages. The alliance's proposed amendment, which echoes the measures in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, would allow state legislatures to recognize gay civil unions if they chose, a provision that has alienated many conservatives. Though the proposed amendment had been introduced in Congress last spring, only the Christian Coalition agreed to supported it.

Finally, in November, after months of internal debate, the Arlington group, which had grown to more than 20 organizations, held a meeting on Capitol Hill with a group of Republicans including Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a Colorado Republican, the sponsor of the Alliance for Marriage amendment. Rios of Concerned Women for America dominated the conversation, taking Musgrave to task for proposing an amendment that would allow "counterfeit marriages," three people present recalled.

But Musgrave refused to budge, arguing that no stronger amendment could pass in Congress, much less in the states. To illustrate her point, Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican, reminded the group of its unsuccessful campaign for an amendment banning abortion.

With that, practical politics won out over principle, and consensus shifted to the Musgrave amendment, several people present said. "That is when reality set in," Wildmon said. "In my mind, at that point in time, we had wasted six months of work."

But the group lost little time in mobilizing its forces. Many of the organizations put out hours of radio programming each week, and in their broadcasts they emphasized the importance of an amendment.

Last week, the Arlington Group gathered around a speakerphone as Land of the Southern Baptist Convention questioned Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist. Would the president support the amendment publicly and, if so, would he do it with the vigor that he showed in fighting for his Medicare bill?

Rove told them that the president was fully behind it, several people present recalled. "We were told that the president was looking for an appropriate moment" for a more public announcement of his support, Land said in a telephone interview yesterday.

However, the president has yet to publicly fulfill Rove's private assurances.

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