Presidential Press Briefing/ Anti-Marriage Amendment

Scott McClellan & members of White House Press, 2/25/2004

Office of the President's Press Secretary
February 24, 2004, 1:00 P.M. EST

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan

The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I'd like to begin with a statement by the President.

Q: : Another one?

MR. McCLELLAN: Another one. This is on the elections in Iran. [snip]

Q: : Scott, on the day's other big announcement, four years ago, in the South Carolina primary debate, the President was asked, "So if a state were voting on gay marriage, you would suggest to that state not to approve it?" And the response of the President was, "The state can do what they want to do." When did the President change his mind that the issue of gay marriage was not a matter for states and, in fact, was a federal issue?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, the President has always firmly believed that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. He has alway held that view. And I think what you're referring to is that the President has talked about how states have the right to enter into their own legal arrangements. And that's what the President is referring to.

Q: : The words in the Q: : uestion were "gay marriage," and I do realize that the President has opposed gay marriage, but when did he —

MR. McCLELLAN: The President's view was very well-known during the campaign of 2000, that he believes marriage is a sacred institution. And he supported efforts to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage.

Q: : Which is what I just said. But my Q: : uestion was, to go to the actual substance of my Q: : uestion, was, when did the President change his mind that this was not an issue for states and, in fact, was a federal issue?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I dispute the premise of your Q: : uestion. His view have always been well-known on this very issue.

Q: : Yes, but he always described it as a state issue. Now he's describing it as a federal issue. When did he change his mind?

MR. MCCLELLAN: No, no, he said that states have the right to enter into their own legal arrangements. Go ahead, Terry.

Q: : Scott, is this an issue that the President wants to raise in the campaign and try to draw a distinction with Senator Kerry, who opposes a constitutional amendment?

MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, it's an issue of national importance. You heard the President address that earlier, in his remarks. There is confusion — growing confusion in this country right now because of this issue. And that is why we need clarity. The President specifically called for thi debate to be conducted in a civil manner, without bitterness or anger, a he put it, and with respect for one another. The President recognize that an issue of national importance like this reQ: : uires leadership and reQ: : uires a President to make decisions, and then to raise the level of discourse and have a civil discussion on this issue. And that's what he' done.

Q: : Does that mean that he will try to draw a distinction with Senator Kerry? You know, he said — the President said last night, it's all about choices. Is he going to try to say that this is what he chooses, and here's what I choose?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is going to continue to fight to protect the sanctity of marriage. I think you have to look at this in the context of recent events. We cannot pretend that the events in Massachusetts or San Francisco are not happening. And that's why the President is providing leadership, and making a decision based on principle. And he will continue to talk about the importance of protecting this sacred institution.

Q: : Scott, two Q: : uestions. Just to follow up on John's, he was asked in that debate specifically about gay marriage, not about states having the right to form contractual arrangements, domestic partnerships or civil unions. So did he misspeak, when asked directly about gay marriage, when he answered, it should be up to the states?

MR. McCLELLAN: What I'm telling you is that the President has alway believed marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman; that it should be an institution that is protected. And that's what the President has always made very clear. John was talking about a change, and I don't see that.

Q: : Well, but in that actual Q: : uote he was directly asked, and the words, "gay marriage" were used in the Q: : uestion to him.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think the President's views are very well known, and they are what they have always been.

Q: : Okay. On the matter of civil unions — I don't want to get bogged down in the legalisms, if I could just draw a picture. What does the President believe should happen in this country, if the state of Vermont, Massachusetts, California, wherever, establishes the kind of domestic partnerships that he says he favors, and a same-sex couple then moves?

MR. McCLELLAN: Wait, I'm sorry, that he says he favors —

Q: : He says it should be up to the state, I'm sorry.


Q: : And then a same-sex couple moves from the state where their partnership is recognized, to Texas, to wherever — should they have the same right in the new state that their old state gave them?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that, actually, the Defense of Marriage Act state that, one, for federal law, marriage is between a man and a woman. And then it goes on to state that states are not reQ: : uired to recognize relationships from other states that are "treated as" marriage. So that' what the Defense of Marriage spells out. And the President has strongly supported the Defense of Marriage Act.

Q: : Okay, so he doesn't think that same-sex couples should be able to move out of a state that recognizes their partnership into one —

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, it says "treated as" marriage, and he support the Defense of Marriage Act, which addresses that issue.

Q: : Scott, can I have a rebuttal, since you mischaracterized my Q: : uestion?

MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on one second.

Q: : When the President says that the states should be free to pick legal arrangements other than marriage, does that include civil unions, specifically?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, states can make their own decisions with regard to legal arrangements. That would include hospital visitation rights, it would include insurance benefits, it would include civil unions — we talked about this earlier. The President has made it very clear that he would not have supported it for the state of Texas.

Q: : Civil union?


Q: : Okay. Let me ask one more Q: : uestion. There's this interesting sentence here where he says that "marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society." So how does gay marriage weaken society, in the President' view?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this goes to the issue of an institution that i enduring and lasting. The President said in his remarks that this is the most fundamental institution in our civilization. And he talked about, in his State of the Union, about the importance of defending these kinds of enduring institutions, that some things — that some things never change. He actually addressed that in his State of the Union address. And he talked about the importance of making sure that the people's voice i heard, as well.

Q: : But specifically, how does allow — how does allowing gay marriage, allowing two people of the same sex to marry, how does that weaken our society?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's a strong value of our society. It's a strong value of our civilization. And we should protect and defend those kinds of enduring institutions in our society.

Q: : Did the President consult anyone else besides those who are pro hi position? You gave us a long list this morning —

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, actually, the —

Q: : Was anyone against his premise?

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, the President arrived at this decision in a very thoughtful and deliberate manner. He considered a wide variety of views on this issue. The White House Domestic Policy Council and the Counsel' Office was very involved in this process, at the direction of the President. The White House consulted constitutional scholars, academic scholars, and theologians, religious leaders, congressional leaders, state leaders, and others. So we looked at a wide variety of views and the President certainly took into consideration the views of the American people when he was looking at this matter. And then he essentially — he essentially came to a decision over the weekend, but he made a final decision this morning to go ahead with this announcement.

Q: : What does he think the penalty should be, they should go to jail if they break this law that eventually he hopes to have?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President believes that we should protect and defend the sanctity of marriage, Helen. That's what this is about. And there are people —

Q: : They should go to jail?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, Helen, that's not the way the President is looking at it. The President is looking at this from making sure that activist judges and local officials don't redefine this enduring institution in our society.

Q: : You say, "and the President believes it's important to protect institutions in our society." But I wonder if the American people deserve a little bit more of an explanation about what the downside of all of thi is. Can you explain how the President arrived at this view? He talk freQ: : uently about his faith; is that a major component in arriving at hi decision about gay marriage? What specifically would happen to our society, as Elisabeth alluded to —

MR. McCLELLAN: His beliefs and his principles.

Q: : Hold on — what specifically would happen to society if same-sex couple were allowed to marry?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why I talked about the values that we should stand up and defend. The President made it very clear in his remarks that this is an enduring institution of our civilization. It goes to the very fabric of our society when he talks about this issue.

Q: : So the fabric of society would break down if men were allowed to marry other men and women other women?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's why the President believes that this is an important value and enduring institution to defend. And that's what — so he' looking at this —

Q: : What would happen to marriage if same-sex couples were allowed to marry? I just don't — I'm trying to understand the President's thinking. Is thi purely based on his religious faith? How does he arrive at this?

MR. McCLELLAN: This is based on principle, it's based on his long-held belief. And I would remind you that this is something that enjoys — that protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage enjoys widespread support in this country.

Q: : And I'd ask Democrats this, too.

MR. McCLELLAN: The congressional — Congress overwhelmingly passed the Defense of Marriage Act to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage. But there' no assurances that activist judges won't seek to strike that down. And I would remind you that 38 states already have made it very clear that marriage i between a man and a woman.

Q: : Scott, following up on that. On the faith issue, the President ha talked about — this is intertwined with faith, but the Bible has been hotly contested on this issue. Some are saying that it's not in the Bible; some are saying it is. Where in the Bible has the President found thi specific —

MR. McCLELLAN: April, I think the President described it from his view about where his beliefs are, and the principle of this decision.

Q: : He talks about faith a great deal. And he talks about he — hi foundation, his new foundation after 40 is based on faith. Where in the Bible —

MR. McCLELLAN: The President talked about how he came to the decision and why he came to this decision. He spelled out the very reasons for acting on this issue now.

Q: : Okay, well, maybe I could rephrase the Q: : uestion. You say that the President has talked to theologians. What part of the Bible did they particularly focus in on to help the President to come up with —

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think they're actually religious leaders from across the spectrum, with a wide variety of views.

Q: : But where did they focus in on in the Bible? I mean, because this is a hotly contested issue. Some people say it's in; some people say it's not in the Bible.

MR. McCLELLAN: Right, and you're welcome to religious leaders about that.

Q: : We understand there's the issue of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, but did he use that? We want to know.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he talked about, in the Roosevelt Room, about the reasons how he came to this — how he came to this decision —

Q: : I understand what you're saying, but we want to know where the foundation of faith is on this issue. Is it Sodom and Gomorrah? Is it some other part of the Bible?

MR. McCLELLAN: You can consult religious scholars if you want to know those issues.

Q: : I have, and I'm asking you.

Q: : Why do this now? And why isn't this an issue to be worked — to work it way up through the courts?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, actually, the President talked about it in hi remarks. He talked about the events that are unfolding in Massachusett and in San Francisco and in other areas, including in New Mexico. And in Massachusetts, you have a Supreme Court that has ruled on this issue. And the Supreme Court has said that by mid-May that the state should allow for the issuing of licenses to same-sex couples. And so that's within two months from now. In San Francisco, you have people that are simply ignoring the law. And so these events were unfolding. It's also important to recognize that the constitutional process can take some time. It can go anywhere from three months to over 200 years, if you look at the 27th Amendment.

Q: : Right, but we also have a U.S. Supreme Court. Was it the President' judgment that this would not make its way to the Supreme Court, and therefore —

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in Massachusetts, it was a state issue. And so the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled there's no appeal to the — on the Massachusetts — above the Massachusetts Supreme Court on that state matter. Now the legislature has the option of acting, but the legislature met and they chose not to act at this point in time. And so you have — two months from now, you're going to have a state that will be forced to start allowing same-sex couples to marry. And keep in mind, the President believes it's very important, I think when we have this discussion, to treat everybody with dignity and respect. It's — but this is a principled decision about an enduring and lasting institution in our civilization. And that's why the President came to the decision that he did.

Q: : But you're saying the judgment was made that this could not be resolved in the court system, that it would not make its way to the Supreme Court, that this was the only way to deal with this because the Supreme Court would never be able to definitively resolve this issue?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President spoke to that in his remarks. He said that the only recourse for the people now is to pursue a constitutional amendment.

Q: : One last thing. You say that this will add clarity. It can take as long as seven years to take this — to complete this process on a constitutional amendment. What happens in the meantime? How does thi provide —

MR. McCLELLAN: There's another reason for acting, because we need to —

Q: : How does this provide clarity? It seems to me that, in the meantime, the states can continue to act as they wish and you've got seven years of states allowing gay marriage. Does this do anything to stop that —

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Jim, that's why I pointed out the widespread support in this country for protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage. And I pointed to the fact that 38 states have already passed measures to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and —

Q: : But those are not the ones you're worried about; you're worried about the other states.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, and, again, I think the support is across the country. More and more states have acted on this very issue. Go ahead, I'm sorry.

Q: : Well, what happens in the meantime? I mean, while we're working on a constitutional amendment, while you're begging members of Congress to take this up — about which many Republicans are skeptical — what happens?

MR. McCLELLAN: And here you go to the very issue of why acting now. I mean, he spelled out the very reasons, some of which I mentioned. And it' also important to move as soon as possible on the constitutional process. And the first step is for Congress to act, and then it will go to state legislatures.

Q: : But you're acknowledging we could have seven years of gay marriage in states that decide it's okay before we get a constitutional amendment, if it takes that long.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President is leading and making a principled decision on a very important issue, an issue of national importance. And he's going to continue to make it clear that this is an institution that we need to protect and defend, for the reasons that he stated. And it' important that that process begin now. But people — obviously, in California there is discussion going on right now in the state about making sure that they're abiding by the California family code, making sure that individuals in San Francisco are abiding by that code.

Q: : Scott, to follow up on that, if I might. Congressman Dreier — sorry, Jacobo.

MR. McCLELLAN: Just jump in.

Q: : Well, it follows on what you're saying now. Congressman Dreier says that a constitutional amendment is premature and the court system should be allowed to work in this case. Obviously, he's chairman of the Rule Committee and can control the flow of legislation on the floor. Is this a problem? Have you all talked to him about this?

MR. McCLELLAN: We have talked with congressional leaders. We are going to continue to talk with congressional leaders as we move forward on thi issue. We will be working with them on specific language for an amendment. And the President, as you heard, urged Congress to move promptly on thi very issue.

Q: : The Democratic National Committee has criticized President Bush for the statement claiming that it's a political ploy in an election year.

MR. McCLELLAN: And? Do you have a Q: : uestion?

Q: : Your comments.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why I talked about early on, how there — you have to look at the events that are unfolding. There is confusion and division going on in this country right now. That is why we need to bring clarity to this issue of national importance. The President has made it very clear that this debate should be conducted in a civil manner. He said that in his very remarks. He said, "We should conduct this difficult debate in a manner worthy of our country, without bitterness or anger. In all that lies ahead, let us match strong conviction with kindness and goodwill and decency." The President made it very clear that everybody should be treated with dignity and respect, but that this enduring institution is something that is important to defend, for the reasons that he spelled out. And when it comes to an issue of such national significance, it's important for leaders to make decisions; it's important for leaders to raise the level of discourse and work to conduct thi discussion in a very civil way. And that's what the President is doing.


Q: : Back on gay marriage. What do you say to moderates in your own party who say that the President can no longer be taken seriously as a compassionate conservative, as he likes to call himself, by endorsing this kind of amendment?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know who is saying that, number one. But the President is someone — well, who is that?

Q: : Well, for one, there are some gay rights activists, Log Cabin Republicans, and more broadly, some —

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that people recognize that the President arrived at this decision based on his long-held beliefs and based on principle. And they recognize that the President is someone who believes that everybody in our society should be treated with respect and dignity — he has alway spoken out very forcefully on that matter — and that while we may disagree on this issue, we can have a very civil discussion about it.

Q: : Scott, since the campaign has now begun, and since there is now —

MR. McCLELLAN: It began for you all a long time ago. (Laughter.)


Q: : Does the President support — propose specific language for an amendment? Or will he support the existing language already before Congress?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, obviously, we want to work closely with Congre throughout this process. We will work closely with them on the specific language. He has indicated that Congresswoman Musgrave's legislation meet some of the principles he has talked about.

Q: : Will the President press for a vote in Congress on this before the recess, before the end of the year?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you heard from the President, and he urged Congre to act promptly. And you've heard from me that I think we should — that Congress should move as Q: : uickly as possible. As I indicated, sometimes the constitutional process can take some time.


Q: : You said that as governor of Texas he would not have supported a civil unions law. But am I correct in assuming that now he would like to see an America where states can enact civil union laws for homosexuals, but not call it marriage? Is that correct?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this debate centers on marriage, and the definition of marriage. And some people have sought to redefine this sacred institution. And that's why the President has come out strongly in support of protecting the sanctity of marriage.

Q: : I just want to know if maybe you can explain what the President's view is as to the difference between a civil union and marriage. Because many people might argue that in the eyes of government, even heterosexual married is really just a civil contract between those two people to protect them legally and financially —

MR. McCLELLAN: I think he defined marriage. He believes marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. That's how he would define it.

Q: : Is there a difference that goes beyond semantics?

MR. McCLELLAN: Legal arrangements that states want to enter into, they certainly have that right. The President has made that very clear. This i a debate about marriage, and an enduring and lasting institution in thi country.


Q: : Before the President issued his statement this morning on gay marriage, did he discuss it with the Vice President? And secondly, is there a particular reason why he didn't make this announcement last night, during his major speech?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President made a final decision to proceed with thi announcement this morning. I've already indicated that.

Q: : And did he discuss it with the Vice President?

MR. McCLELLAN: But, obviously, recent events have been having an influence on his decision. And the Vice President is very well-aware of the decisions the President makes.

Q: : One more on the threat the President sees from gay marriage. What is, in the President's view, a greater threat to this enduring institution of marriage, a same-sex couple establishing a stable marriage, or the staggering divorce rate, the out-of-wedlock birth level and travestie like Britney Spear's marital fiasco? (Laughter.) What —

MR. McCLELLAN: There are so many different things in there, but —

Q: : And then what is he going to do — which is the greater threat?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think — look back to the President's State of the Union address, and he talked about the importance of values that we hold so dearly in this country. And he talked about the importance of changing our culture, and ushering in a responsibility era. He's long held those views.

Q: : So he would like to see a lower divorce rate, lower out-of-wedlock births, and Britney Spears behave herself? (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, actually, I think if you look at some of the step that we've taken in the welfare reform reauthorization, we have proposal in there to help strengthen marriage and help individuals.

Q: : Scott, can I just ask again, the same sort of Q: : uestion? If he support allowing the states to choose civil unions, how does a civil union not weaken society —

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, and let me —

Q: : — in the way a gay marriage does?

MR. McCLELLAN: — and let me make clear, he has said that he would have opposed it for his state of Texas. And what he has said and always said i that states have the right to enter into their own legal arrangements. That's what he's made clear. When you're saying, support things, that' not Q: : uite the way he looks at it.

Q: : Does he feel that allowing civil — the states to choose civil union would weaken society?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that you have some 38 states — this issue is about marriage, Elisabeth. This is about the definition of marriage, and he believes strongly that it is a sacred institution, and that it's important to protect it.

Q: : What's the difference between a civil union and marriage? Is it religious involvement — is it because marriage is —

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think different states have different —

Q: : What does the President think?

MR. McCLELLAN: — different benefits that they look to address.

Q: : But what does the President think is the difference between a civil union and marriage?

MR. McCLELLAN: Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. I don't know how I can make it more clearly that the President has said that repeatedly.


Q: : Scott, I just want to come back to where I started, because you seemed to characterize my Q: : uestion as asking if the President's views on marriage being between a man and a woman had changed. That's not what I asked. I was simply stating, talking about the application of his views, when did he cease seeing it as a state issue and begin seeing it as a federal issue?

MR. McCLELLAN: And again, I said that he's always viewed marriage as a sacred institution between a man and a woman. And I will keep — I would point back to some of what he said in terms of the — one, I'm not accepting the premise the way you stated the Q: : uestion — but point back to what he said in his remarks when it came to the issue of other state having to recognize laws of other states.

Q: : Also, this would be the first time since the Prohibition era that a constitutional amendment had been sought that would actually restrict rights in America. Though there may be some people in this room who remembers how well the Prohibition amendment went down, does the President really want to be the first President since the Prohibition era to deny people rights?

MR. MCCLELLAN: Again, I think the President addressed this very issue in his remarks when he talked about how we are a free, just and tolerant society, and he talked about the importance of respecting all individuals, but that this is about an enduring institution of national importance.

Q: : Thank you.

END 1:36 P.M. EST