Feb 16 2004

Amendment Deception Needs Media Clarity

(NOTE: Please read the update to this action alert)

Backers of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage have created a misleading impression of their legislative plan– a deception that some media outlets have not properly explained to readers and viewers.

The dispute centers on the fact that some advocates claim that the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment would permit states to allow civil unions for gays and lesbians. On February 11, ABC World News Tonight correspondent Terry Moran explained that the amendment “would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but allow states to establish civil unions for gay couples.” Moran continued by saying that “some conservatives are unhappy that the proposed amendment would allow civil unions for gay couples.”

But the language of the amendment introduced by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) suggests otherwise: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.”

Some legal scholars point out that the “nor state or federal law” clause would make it difficult for states to pass any civil unions legislation for gay couples. Unfortunately, some media outlets have failed to clarify the issue by offering only what amendment supporters are saying. The New York Times, for example, explained (2/8/04) that “the proposed amendment would allow state legislatures to recognize gay civil unions, a provision that had alienated many conservatives.” The Times wrote that some on the right “considered it far too permissive” because they believe the amendment would allow for civil unions.

Other papers have managed to convey the legal dispute. The Washington Post (2/14/04) devoted a whole article to the topic, reporting that “the amendment’s possible interpretations are a matter of furious debate among constitutional scholars and political activists, with some contending that it would allow Vermont-style civil unions and others saying it would not.” The Post noted that two of the amendment’s authors “contend that the opening sentence also would forbid some kinds of civil unions,” though others aren’t so sure.

The federal marriage amendment could be a key issue in the 2004 presidential campaign– as ABC‘s Moran put it, “White House advisors say it is just a matter of when, not if, the president comes out in favor of amending the Constitution.” Considering that political reality, journalists should set the record straight on its potential consequences.


Write to the New York Times and ABC World News Tonight and encourage them to accurately report what the federal marriage amendment might mean for same-sex civil unions.


New York Times

Daniel Okrent


Phone: (212) 556-7652

ABC News

World News Tonight

Phone: 212-456-4040