President George Bush yesterday backed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage - a move clearly designed to appeal to his conservative supporters and divide the Democrats as he campaigns for re-election.
Speaking from the Roosevelt room of the White House, Mr Bush said an amendment was necessary in order to protect "the most fundamental institution of civilisation". He said that judges across the country were threatening to redefine marriage by permitting gay couples to marry.
"After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilisation," Mr Bush said.
The debate over same sex marriage has come under scrutiny in recent weeks following moves by various States to permit such arrangements.
In San Francisco, officials have issued thousands of gay marriage licences, causing the Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to direct the state's Attorney General to stop the licences being handed out. In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the state's most senior court has indicated that it will order the issuance of marriage licences to gay couples from May onwards.
With his eye clearly on November's presidential election, Mr Bush said that a constitutional amendment was the only way to protect marriage as an institution between "a man and a woman". He added: "Unless action is taken, we can expect more arbitrary court decisions, more litigation, more defiance of the law by local officials."
Mr Bush's comments in support of an amendment - proposed by Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican Congresswoman - will undoubtedly please the president's conservative supporters and members of the religious right.
Much more importantly his statement is designed to drive a wedge between Democrats, whose support has been rising in recent weeks as they select a Presidential candidate.
Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, said the party had determined that gay marriage was an issue that could be used to rally supporters. He said: "This is going to be a part of the 2004 campaign."
A poll for CNN suggested that 64 per cent of people believe that gay marriages should not be recognised by the law.
The position of the Democratic frontrunner John Kerry, the Massachusetts Senator, is not that different to that of Mr Bush. Mr Kerry supports gay civil unions, but a spokes-woman yesterday confirmed that he opposed gay marriages.
Gay rights activists say there are considerable differences between civil unions and marriage, namely that such unions are only recognised by one state and that marriages are eligible for "1,000 federal benefits" that civil unions are not.
Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said: "Constitutional amendments have historically served to expand liberty and equality. This amendment would be the first to reinstate discrimination in our Constitution."
But it is far from clear whether the marriage amendment measure would succeed.
In order for the Constitution to be amended it would require a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House, as well as ratification by three-quarters of the 50 US states.
Mr Bush comments are the latest indication that he is now fully involved in the campaign to retain the White House.
In a speech on Monday night, widely touted as the unofficial launch of his re-election bid, Mr Bush attacked Democrats and said they would raise taxes, stifle business and weaken America's national security.Reuse content