S president George Bush has repeated his belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, and criticised activist judges for redefining marriage by court order.

Speaking in his State Of The Union address this week in the lead-up to the presidential election, Bush said America must defend the sanctity of marriage. Although he did not mention same-sex marriage explicitly or the looming battle over a possible constitutional amendment to ban it, Bush’s statement will encourage the religious right.

If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process, Bush said.

However, in an effort at appearing even-handed, the president went on to say that the way the debate over marriage was conducted was important.

The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God’s sight, he said.

Bush’s speech came one day after Democrat presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry’s surprise win in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Kerry’s win places him in a three-way tussle with former Vermont governor Howard Dean and retired army general Wesley Clark in the next state caucus in New Hampshire.

Kerry has a long record of supporting gay rights causes, and plans to continue to do so. While, like Bush, he doesn’t support same-sex marriages, he has endorsed civil unions or domestic partnerships as an alternative.

I do not support [gay] marriage … it’s just a personal belief about what the relationship of marriage is and how it works, Kerry told the Washington Post. But I’m in favour of civil unions. I’ve supported all forms of partnership union. I think gays should have all of the rights of ownership, of partnership, of visitation in hospitals, of inheritance, and so forth. I think that’s entirely within the civil structure of our country and that is appropriate.

According to his gay liaison, Tom Daley, Kerry has been vocally pro-gay in the political arena since the early 80s -“ long before it was fashionable. The Washington Blade reports that in 1985 he introduced a bill outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He has called an end to the controversial Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US defence force. And while he may not support gay marriage, he has opposed a federal ban on the recognition of gay marriages.

The gay Democratic group, National Stonewall Democrats, last week endorsed Howard Dean, a vocal supporter of gay rights who when he was governor of Vermont made his home state the first in the US to approve civil unions for gay couples. However, like Kerry, he opposes federally recognised gay marriage.

Wesley Clark also sought to shore up his gay support with a wide-ranging interview for the Southern Voice. He said he was against a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, but wouldn’t say whether he would support having them legally recognised. The important point for me is, legally, people must have equal and full rights under the law, he said. Clark said gay rights issues had been brought up constantly on his campaign trail: It comes up relatively frequently. I’d say at least every other stop, someone will ask about it. It’s an important issue. People are concerned about it.

Whoever ends up leading the Democratic race for the White House this year, it’s clear gay rights are going to be a hotly debated issue throughout the presidential election.

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