An increasing number of religious, civil rights and political groups have spoken out against the Federal Marriage Amendment currently being debated in the US Senate, claiming it distracts attention from the real problems facing Americans.

The law would amend the Constitution to deny States the ability to define marriage themselves, mandating that marriage be only between one man and one woman, and would deny all benefits of marriage to all unmarried couples.

Matt Foreman, executive director of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force reacted to sources close to US President George W Bush who claimed he is only supporting the bill through political obligation, “Yes, this is about pandering to his base. Yes, this is about diverting America’s attention from his foreign and domestic failures. But above all, this is an immoral attack on gay people, our families and our fundamental humanity.

“We saw the President again surrounded by the leaders of America’s anti-gay industry, individuals who make a living out of denigrating, demonising and defaming gay people and our families. The fact that friends of the president say he doesn’t even care about this issue is proof-positive of the grip that the forces of religious and political intolerance have on the throat of America.

“It is pure hypocrisy for the president to say that all Americans deserve to be treated with tolerance, respect and dignity, while he cosies up to these bigots.

“In the not-too-distant future, those involved in this assault, and their descendants, will look back with shame and regret.”

Reverend John Thomas, United Church of Christ general minister and president, released a statement urging senators to vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment.

Citing the July 4, 2005, resolution passed by the UCC’s General Synod, its main deliberative body, affirming marriage equality, Mr Thomas said, “The General Synod has voiced its opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment, which proposes to single out same gender couples for discrimination in the U.S. Constitution, denying them access to the full rights, benefits and responsibilities accorded heterosexual couples through civil, legal marriage.

“Thus, on behalf of the General Synod… I call on the members of the United States Senate to respect the religious diversity that exists in our country, respect the U.S. Constitution and its longstanding tradition of expanding rights rather than restricting them, and urge Senators to vote against the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment.”

Senator Edward Kennedy, coined a joint statement along with Leadership Conference on Civil Rights executive director Wade Henderson and other civil rights and religious leaders, including Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, saying,

“It is a real threat to millions of Americans when the Republican leadership stands on the Senate floor and gives license to treat gay and lesbian Americans as second-class citizens. It is shameful that with a war raging in Iraq and gas prices continuing to skyrocket that this President and the Republican leadership in Congress would rather spend precious time debating a divisive and discriminatory amendment to the Constitution.

“Make no mistake about it, the debate happening on the floor of the United States Senate today is whether we are going to undermine our Constitution and deny rights to millions of Americans by singling them out for discrimination.”

Soulforce, the organisation founded to end religion-based discrimination of gays and lesbians, is taking their cause to the boyhood streets of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Senator responsible for re-introducing the controversial marriage amendment.

Scheduled for the first week of June, Soulforce placed sixteen billboard posters in and around his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee to call attention to the issue.

The billboards feature part of a speech given by Coretta Scott King, late wife of Martin Luther King Jr, at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey on March 24, 2004, when she said, “Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protections, whether by marriage or civil union. A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing, and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages.”

The billboards include a photograph of Soulforce executive director Jeff Lutes with his partner and son.

Mr Lutes said: “Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and others, under pressure from wealthy fundamentalists, are again trying to write discrimination into the constitution rather than focusing on the real problems facing America. Soulforce reminds Senator Frist’s hometown that Mrs King stood for the full equality of lesbian and gay Americans and against homophobia, especially homophobia in the black community. Mrs King publicly saluted the gays and lesbians that fought for her freedom in Montgomery and Selma and other places during the civil rights movement, and she compared homophobia to racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry that set the stage for repression and violence.”

Proponents of the previously failed 2004 amendment feel it is their duty to force a public vote by scapegoating gays and lesbians as threats to heterosexual marriage. Helen Palmer of the League of Women Voters said: “The rights of one group should not be subjected to the vagaries of the majority.”

“Soulforce is dedicated to educating the public regarding the lives of non-traditional families and the harmful effects of religion based bigotry on the children caught in the cross hairs of this political red herring. The billboard campaign will remind people that Coretta Scott King called all Americans who believed in the late Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to resist injustice and instead “make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people’.”

Mr Bush voiced support for the amendment earlier this week, “Our policies should aim to strengthen families, not undermine them,” he said.

“And changing the definition of marriage would undermine the family structure.”

National Lawyers Guild president Michael Avery said, “If this Amendment were to pass it would be the first time that the Constitution had been amended to deny any group of citizens the equal protection of the law. President Bush is joining the politics of fear with the politics of hate in a way that is fundamentally un-American.”

The Senate will vote on the issue this morning while even supporters of the bill admit they are falling short of even a simple 51-vote majority, far less than the 67 votes needed to amend the Constitution.