At the end of February, while Washington was preoccupied with the bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Iraq and the planned transfer of port operations in six U.S. cities to a company from the United Arab Emirates, leaders of several of the nation's most influential religious groups came together for an unusual meeting at the Army and Navy Club.
The uncommonly ecumenical gathering included Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia; the Rev. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; and Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Mormon Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Also present were leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church, the predominantly black Church of God in Christ and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, among others.
All had worked within their own faith groups against the acceptance of same-sex marriage. Many had spoken in support of the proposed constitutional amendment two years ago to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
With Congress due to revisit the issue, they were coordinating their efforts. As the U.S. Senate this week takes up what is now called the Marriage Protection Amendment, and with President Bush planning to promote the measure in Washington today, senators are likely feeling a new level of pressure from the nation's religious conservatives.
Supporters acknowledge that the proposal is unlikely to gain the two-thirds majority needed to move an amendment forward this week, but several say that interreligious cooperation will be crucial to eventual victory.
"This really has brought people together," said Princeton law professor Robert P. George, who helped organize that initial meeting. "It's taught people that they have a lot more in common than what divides them, including their devotion to marriage and family. It's crucial to the success of the amendment."
The Christian organization Focus on the Family is running newspaper advertisements in 13 key states, urging constituents to contact senators believed to be possible "yes" votes. Focus founder James Dobson devoted three installments of his daily radio show last week to mobilizing an audience of 7 million to 8 million.
The Family Research Council was offering sermons for "Family Protection Sunday" yesterday. The Catholic organization Knights of Columbus has distributed 10 million postcards for parishioners to fill out and send to their senators.
The effort has united antagonists as never before.
"The issue of traditional marriage crosses a lot of denominational lines," University of Akron political scientist John C. Green said. "There's a lot of religious groups that can't agree on the nature of God and how to read the Scripture and where heaven is, but can all agree that marriage ought to stay the way it is."
Faith-based opponents of the amendment also are speaking out. Leaders in liberal denominations are preaching acceptance of gays and lesbians. Several, including representatives of the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Union of Reform Judaism, have joined together as Clergy for Fairness to urge senators to reject the measure.
"Although we have differing opinions on rights for same-sex couples," they said in a statement, "we believe the Federal Marriage Amendment reflects a fundamental disregard for individual civil rights and ignores differences among our nation's many religious traditions."
But among the faithful, support for the amendment has been louder than opposition.
"Religious conservatives are better organized than people on the other side," said Green, an author of Religion and the Culture Wars: Dispatches from the Front. "A lot of the voices that might be opposed to the amendment aren't engaged in mass mobilization."
Even with that organization -- and the backing of Bush, who devoted his weekly radio address Saturday to the subject -- many supporters say they have a long-term view.
"Americans have always acted as religious people," George said. "If you look at the antislavery movement, if you look at the temperance movement, if you look at the civil rights movement ... it's hard to imagine any social movement in America ultimately being successful without the participation of religious people acting on their faith convictions."
Religious leaders say their bases have been energized by court decisions that have struck down state amendments banning same-sex marriage. In Georgia last month, a state judge overturned on procedural grounds a measure approved by 76 percent of voters in 2004. In Nebraska last year, a federal judge ruled that an amendment that passed with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2000 interfered with the rights of gay couples.
Pat Korten, who has spearheaded the postcard drive for the Knight of Columbus, said those decisions show the need for a constitutional amendment.
"There are court cases pending in a number of different states right now, places where you could find some federal court judge someplace who could find that limiting marriage to a man and a woman somehow violates the due process clause," he said. "Then we are at very serious risk of losing marriage as we have known it."
Supporters of a ban say the numbers are on their side. Among Americans generally, 51 percent oppose same-sex marriage, according to a March poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In 2004, 13 states approved initiatives banning gay marriage or civil unions.
"A number of senators just do not get it," said Tom McClusky, the vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council. "By not supporting the marriage amendment, you're ignoring the facts that are out there in the states right now."
The 2004 amendment proposal drew 48 Senate votes on a procedural roll call, far less than the 67 required for passage. The House vote was 227-186, 49 less than the required two-thirds. If Congress approves a measure, it must be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures within seven years to become law.
Amendment supporters are hoping for a simple majority in the Senate vote. But it is unclear how they would win the Democratic votes needed for the two-thirds supermajority.
"Many Democrats see them, perhaps correctly, as largely a Republican constituency," Green said. "This particular group doesn't have quite the purchase with Democratic senators that it has with Republican senators."
The long-term prospects for a marriage amendment are less clear. The 51 percent that opposed same-sex marriage in March was down from 63 percent in February 2004. Other surveys have shown that younger voters are more open to gay marriage than older voters.
George, of Princeton, is sanguine.
"We don't know whether as younger people become older people, and especially as they become married themselves and have the experience of marriage and children and have close contact with what marriage actually is, whether they will tend to become more -- if we have to speak in these terms -- conservative."
Whatever the outcome this week, Green said, religious conservatives can count the fact that the debate has been scheduled at all as a positive step.
"A lot of members of the Senate would just as soon not take this up," he said. "From the point of the movement organizations, just having the vote is extremely important, because then everybody goes on record, and that can be used to mobilize for politics in the fall."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
The proposed Marriage Protection Amendment that the Senate is to consider this week says: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."
[ Source: U.S. Senate]