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As the U.S. Senate prepares to take up the Federal Marriage Amendment next week (July 12), religious leaders from across the spectrum are mobilizing their congregations to ensure that Washington is inundated with opinions.
James Dobson, president of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, told listeners of his nationally syndicated radio program to "Get all your friends to call. Call until the switchboard smokes."
The proposed constitutional amendment would define marriage as "only ... the union of a man and a woman." Proponents say the amendment is the only way to keep judges from forcing states to recognize gay marriages.
Most scholars, activists and lawmakers agree that the amendment -- which must be approved by a two-thirds majority in Congress and then ratified by at least 34 states -- has little chance of moving beyond the Senate this year.
Still, conservative lawmakers and religious activists are looking to the amendment's debate as an opportunity to focus attention on the issue and to force senators to make their views public.
"It's important for politicians who have deftly avoided this issue ... to let people know where they really stand," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who is a co-sponsor of the amendment.
While conservative groups may be the most organized, liberal groups are also determined that their voices be heard. Soulforce, an ecumenical gay rights group based in Lynchburg, Virginia, has encouraged its members to stand silently in the pews with a message that says "I oppose the FMA" if their churches denounce gay marriage during Sunday services.
"We're trying to stop pastors from using their time on the pulpit to demean the loving relationship between two people," said Laura Montgomery Rutt, a spokeswoman for the group.
Despite the push from members of Congress, supporters of the amendment may face an uphill battle in motivating action in the pews. A recent survey by the Pew Research for People & the Press showed that while 59 percent opposed gay marriage, only 36 percent were in favor of a constitutional amendment to outlaw it.
John Green, a specialist on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said it may be difficult to convince the religious right that a constitutional amendment is the best way to "defend" their definition of marriage.
"Christian conservatives have a great deal of respect for the Constitution," he said. "They see the hand of God and divine providence in it. Therefore, they are often very reluctant to tamper with it."
But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative group that is fighting hard for the marriage amendment, said there is a "learning curve" before Christians see the need for a constitutional change.
"A lot of what they hear is `Oh, don't mess with the Constitution, it's a sacred document,'" he said. But they don't understand that measures currently in place "will not constrain federal judges. The only way to do that is through an amendment in the Constitution," he said.
The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage as between one man and one woman and allowed states not to recognize gay marriages performed in other states. Both supporters and opponents of a constitutional amendment say the 1996 law might not be able to withstand a court challenge.
In an effort to energize conservative Christians, groups like the Focus on the Family, the Alliance for Marriage and the Family Research Council are proceeding full thrust with radio and television programs, rallies, preaching tips and bulletin inserts.
The FRC and the Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which also favors the amendment, have declared Sunday (July 11) to be "Protect Marriage Sunday” and are encouraging pastors to preach against same-sex marriage.
They are also urging churches and Christian television and radio stations to simulcast "The Battle for Marriage: Imminent Vote," live from Memphis, Tenn. Perkins estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 radio and television stations and 500 to 700 churches will broadcast the program.
Monday has been deemed "Call Your Senators Day" by the American Family Association, which has listed each senator's phone number on its Web site.
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has written to all Catholic bishops asking them to personally lobby their senators to support the amendment. The USCCB has also asked bishops "to generate additional support through pastors from the larger Catholic community."
Santorum, who is Catholic, said bishops could be providing information for sermons priests might give in conjunction with the readings for that week, as Archbishop Sean O'Malley did in Boston.
Last year, as gay marriage worked its way through the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and later the state legislature, O'Malley twice encouraged pastors to sermonize on the issue, said Daniel Avila, associate director for policy and research at the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.
Other churches have already spoken out against the proposed amendment.
Last month, the Washington offices of the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America wrote a letter to Congress that said, "It is not the task of our government and elected representatives to enshrine in our laws the religious point of view of any one faith."