When thinking of the nuclei of the American homosexual community, Michigan is not usually the first state that comes to mind. The state’s reputation is associated with automakers, unions, hunters and bad baseball teams, but not gays and lesbians.
#ad#Despite the fact that Al Gore won the state with 51 percent to George W. Bush’s 47 percent in 2000, the case could be made that Michigan is increasingly friendly territory for Republicans. The GOP has a 9-to-6 advantage in the congressional delegation, won in 2002 after 28 years of Democratic supremacy. Several of the Democrats, like Bart Stupak (American Conservative Union rating of 42 in 2003) and Dale Kildee (ACU rating of 32), could be considered “conservative” on some issues like guns, human cloning, and partial-birth abortion. So one would think the Wolverine state would be fertile ground for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
But it isn’t.
Eight years ago, Michigan’s representatives overwhelmingly voted for a bill declaring that states had the right to not recognize out-of-state gay marriages. But today, only four members of the state’s house delegation are willing to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Reps. Thaddeus McCotter, Dave Camp, and Peter Hoekstra have issued statements saying they would vote for the amendment. Rep. Fred Upton, a St. Joseph Republican, said he would support an amendment after initially saying he didn’t think it was necessary.
Upton, like much of the delegation, believes the passage of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act pretty much settled the issue — that no state is required to recognize gay marriages performed in another state. Of course, since the Massachusetts Supreme Court reached its decision virtually establishing gay marriage in the Bay State, mayors across the country have decided to ignore state laws and marry gay couples. When a San Francisco couple moves to another state and applies for state spousal benefits, the nation will see just whether the DOMA is worth the paper it’s printed on.
Early last week Upton said that the amendment issue was moot in his state, because DOMA already allows states to refuse to recognize gay marriages sanctioned by other states, and that Michigan law already defines marriage as being restricted to a man and a woman. He also said that the issue did not seem to be a big deal in his district, as none of his constituents asked about the issue at numerous public events in his district during the congressional President’s Day recess.
Rep. Joseph Knollenberg, (R., Bloomfield Hills), is another one of those Republicans who “needs to be convinced” that the constitutional amendment is the best way to handle the issue.
“His position is that marriage should only be legally defined as the union of one man and one woman,” said Chris Close, a Knollenberg spokesman. “He is skeptical of current efforts to amend the Constitution, because he believes that DOMA should stand. It leaves the issue to the states, where he thinks it belongs.”
Mike Rogers, a Lansing Republican, shares a similar view.
“The marriage of a man and a woman is a sacred union and a fundamental element of building strong families and a strong nation,” Rogers said. “Thirty-eight states, including Michigan, have laws recognizing that marriage is between a man and a woman. As long as these state laws are enforced and the 1996 U.S. Defense of Marriage Act is the law of our land, the very serious step of a constitutional amendment should only be our last resort.”
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R., Grand Rapids) has said that he is not going to commit to a constitutional amendment until he sees the exact language that comes to the floor for a vote.
“I agree with the purpose and intent of the amendment because I firmly believe that the term marriage should only apply to a union between a man and a woman,” Ehlers wrote in a constituent letter. “That being said, I am not convinced that a constitutional amendment is necessary… I think that the Defense of Marriage Act can be used to protect and uphold the institution of marriage against attacks by activist judges and local officials.”
Ehlers also wrote in the letter that Congress “needs to be careful about defining or limiting the kind of legislation that states may enact, particularly on issues related to family law that have traditionally been left to states to govern.”
Two other Republicans, Candice Miller of Harrison Township and Nick Smith of Addison, have not commented publicly on the amendment. Miller chairs Bush’s Michigan re-election committee.
How about those not-so-liberal Democrats? They’re finessing the issue, opposing a constitutional amendment while not quite explicitly endorsing gay marriage.
Chani Wiggins, spokeswoman for Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Menominee), said the congressman voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and has stated he believes that “marriage should be between man and woman.” Beyond that, he has not taken any public position on the constitutional amendment.
Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D., Flint) told the Associated Press that he believes it’s premature to consider an amendment because the Defense of Marriage Act hasn’t been tested in the courts. If the act is upheld in court, Kildee thinks the amendment may not be needed.
“A constitutional amendment regarding marriage is a usurpation of states rights,” said Rep. John D. Dingell (D., Dearborn). “I will vote against the amendment when I have a chance.”
(Michigan’s two Democratic senators offered nearly identical statements opposing the gay-marriage amendment, although Sen. Carl Levin pointed to his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.)
Perhaps the lawmakers are touting DOMA because they don’t want to acknowledge that a federal law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton could be so ineffective. After all, if a coalition of judges and mayors can render the 1996 marriage law effectively null and make gay marriage a reality, what’s the point of any federal legislation?
Some members of Congress have privately complained that gay marriage is not an issue they wanted to spend a great deal of time on in an election year. But that’s their tough luck, McCotter said.
“I came to Congress to deal with any issue that comes before the American people, and if some of my colleagues feel differently, that’s unfortunate,” McCotter said. “We don’t get to pick and choose our issues.”
But the amendment’s tepid reception among the Michigan delegation raises a serious question for its supporters: If it can’t get half of the state’s Republican lawmakers to sign on, how on earth is it going to get support from two-thirds of both the House and Senate?
–Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, is a frequent contributor to NRO and a commentator on London’s ITN News.