WASHINGTON -- Americans should respect gay people but draw the line at same-sex marriage, President Bush said Wednesday, adding that he has lawyers working on how to preserve marriage as a strictly heterosexual right.
"I am mindful that we're all sinners, and I caution those who may try to take the speck out of the neighbor's eye when they've got a log in their own," Bush said, invoking a biblical passage during a multitopic news conference in the White House Rose Garden.
He said it's important for Americans to "respect each individual, to welcome those with good hearts, to be a welcoming country."
"On the other hand, that does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on an issue such as marriage," the president said.
"I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other, and we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that," he said.
Bush's comments came just one month after the U.S. Supreme Court used a Houston case to throw out the country's remaining sodomy laws, touching off a public debate about whether gay men and lesbians should now be afforded the same right to marry enjoyed by heterosexuals.
Courts in two Canadian provinces have accepted gay marriage, as have several European countries, and the Supreme Court's 6-3 decision outlawing Texas' Homosexual Conduct Law on privacy grounds has revived interest in gay marriage here.
The question Bush was asked Wednesday probed his moral views on homosexuality in general, but the president responded by commenting on gay marriage, an issue that resonates with his conservative Republican base as he prepares to campaign for a second term in the White House.
A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released this week indicates Americans are nearly evenly divided on the issue, with 48 percent saying such unions should be legal and 46 percent opposing them. That poll, conducted Friday through Sunday, marked a significant shift since early May, when 60 percent said gay marriage should be legal and 35 percent said it should not be, indicating a possible backlash against gay rights since the Supreme Court ruling.
No U.S. state allows gay marriages, though Vermont recognizes civil unions, giving some of the legal benefits of marriage to gay couples. Court cases seeking recognition of gay marriage also are pending in Massachusetts and New Jersey.
As a pre-emptive strike against gay marriage, the Clinton administration in 1996 passed the Defense of Marriage Act, denying federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Thirty-seven states, including Texas, have since passed similar laws, defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
A proposed constitutional amendment adopting that definition has been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives and is pending in a Judiciary subcommittee. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is on record supporting that effort, but Bush has said he's not convinced a constitutional amendment is necessary.
Reactions to the president's comments were mixed in his home state Wednesday.
"Overall, we're not as disappointed in President Bush as we thought we would be," said Mitchell Katine, the Houston lawyer who originally represented John Lawrence and Tyron Garner when they were arrested for having sex at home in 1998, setting up the eventual Supreme Court battle. Katine praised the president for going against his conservative base to pay more attention to AIDS treatment and research and to appoint gays and lesbians to government posts.
But he found Bush's stance against gay marriage insulting.
"I think it's unfair and unequal for people like me and my partner to be deprived of the right and dignity to have the same status for our relationship that President Bush and Mrs. Bush have," he said. "I don't understand what they are afraid of and I don't understand why they should care what gay and lesbian people do."
Michael Adams, an attorney with New York's Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented Lawrence and Garner at the Supreme Court, also said he was disappointed by Bush's comments.
"We don't know precisely what they may be up to, or if those words have much meaning," he said of Bush's remark that lawyers are working on the issue. "Marriage laws are decided by the states."
As for Bush's comment about sinners, Adams said, "If he's saying none of us should stand in judgment of anyone else, I agree. If he's suggesting gay people are sinners because they are gay, that is very offensive."
But activists on the other side of the issue said Bush struck the right tone.
"I think he said what most Americans believe -- that we should treat people nicely, but we shouldn't stand by and let them try to destroy the definition of marriage," said Kelly Shackelford, president of the Dallas-based Free Market Foundation. "That's where I expected the president to be and I'm glad he is."
The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, called Bush's answer "superb."
"It was compassionate and yet it was conservative," Sheldon said. "He doesn't want to infringe on anyone but he is pro one-man, one-woman in marriage. He made it very clear in very kind words."
Sheldon added that Bush is saying what he needs to say to please his conservative base while not alienating Americans who support gay rights. Once Bush is safely into his second term, Sheldon said, he'll be free to make stronger statements and to seat more conservative judges to ascend to the Supreme Court.
"We want to get him re-elected," he said, "and then, Katy, bar the door."