In the blink of an eye, reaction to last week's Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay sexual conduct has morphed into an impassioned debate over the concept of same-sex marriage - and whether that now stands as a possibility on the legal horizon.
The high court's majority did not address gay marriage. But in his angry dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia raised the possibility that that could be coming. Gay rights advocates and social conservatives agree, infusing a burst of energy into the "culture war" that Justice Scalia referred to, and putting politicians on the defensive. "What's your position on gay marriage?" will now be a standard stump question for candidates of all parties.
The issue is especially tricky for the Republican Party. As President Bush tries to broaden his support heading into an election year, he now faces the fury of his social conservative base for not speaking in defense of "family values" over the Texas sodomy case.
"Their silence in the case was deafening," says Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values, who complains that the White House didn't file a legal brief on the case. "The administration has been AWOL on issues related to this dispute, and I don't think they can maintain their studious silence as the battle over the definition of marriage heats up."
The Bush White House is likely surmising that these voters have nowhere to go, and so the president - himself a born-again Christian - can afford their pique, say social conservative activists. After all, Bush has been a strong advocate for their position on abortion, judicial nominees, tax cuts, and the Middle East. Still, they resent feeling taken for granted on an issue that, to them, cuts to the heart of the nation's moral identity - the sanctity of marriage as a male-female institution.
"Bush has a great reservoir of goodwill with the Christian right," says John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron. "This issue, if mishandled, could reduce that reservoir substantially, but wouldn't eliminate it."
Professor Green suggests ways Bush could finesse the issue. The White House can reassure social conservative leaders quietly behind the scenes. The president can also, at some point, deliver a speech on marriage and make clear he means men and women. But some social conservative activists see no room for nuance. "You can't finesse issues that are this divisive and this morally based," says Peter LaBarbera, a senior policy analyst at the Culture and Family Institute in Washington.
Even if social conservatives were upset by the Supreme Court's ruling extending constitutional liberty to adult homosexuals in their private behavior, many Republicans adhere to the libertarian view that private sexual behavior is not the government's business. And so in remaining silent on the case, Bush has protected his position with another important element of the Republican coalition. Bush has also demonstrated quiet tolerance toward gays by appointing a gay man as his AIDS czar and an openly gay ambassador.
Bush can also allow other Republicans to carry some of the water for the social conservative view. Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi called the gay sex ruling "a very negative development" that has "just opened up almost anything in the name of so-called privacy." On Sunday, Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said he supports a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages in the US.
The issue of same-sex marriage isn't easy for Democrats either. Though public opinion in recent years has become more hospitable to same-sex "civil unions," as Vermont recognizes, a majority of Americans still oppose full-fledged marriage for homosexuals. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling last Thursday, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts - a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination - issued a cautious statement that focused less on gay rights and more on "the constitutional right of privacy that belongs to all of us."
Observers of gay politics also note that it was President Clinton, a Democrat, who in 1996 signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows states to refuse recognition of them. Currently, no states allow same-sex marriage, but a legal case seeking that right is near completion in Massachusetts, with a ruling expected any day. Arguments were heard last week in a similar case in New Jersey.
Canada's recent moves toward legalized gay marriage nationwide have added to the hopes of gays in America and fueled the sense of crisis among social conservatives.