WASHINGTON -- Religious leaders said Wednesday that adding a gay rights proposal to immigration legislation could risk their support for the bill, setting up a potential Senate showdown.
"We’re extremely hopeful that this bill will remain an immigration bill and not get tangled up with the issue of gay rights," said Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. "But if it did, if it did, the Southern Baptist Convention would not be able to support the bill."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has prepared amendments that would allow gay Americans or U.S. residents to sponsor their partners for U.S. residence like other married Americans can.
Leahy, D-Vt., has not committed to offering either during his committee’s voting session Thursday, but is under pressure from gay rights groups.
Religious leaders who joined Land on a conference call with reporters echoed Land’s warnings.
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, labeled the gay rights provision "a divisive distraction that must not derail immigration reform."
Added Jim Wallis, head of the Christian social justice group Sojourners: "This is the wrong place at the wrong time" to deal with the issue of gay marriage.
The four Republicans among the eight senators who wrote the immigration bill have said that such a provision could cost their support and kill the bill.
"If that issue is injected into this bill, this bill will fail. It will not have the support. It will not have my support," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said last week in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
If Leahy were to offer a gay marriage amendment, attention would turn to Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to see whether they would support it. Schumer and Durbin are the two Democratic members of the bill-writing group who are on Leahy’s committee.
The eight senators have committed to sticking together to defeat amendments from either side that could derail the bill. Schumer and Durbin have expressed support for Leahy’s goals, but have not said how they would vote.
Gay rights groups are lobbying aggressively for the gay marriage language to be included and they dispute suggestions that it would jeopardize the bill.
"It’s pretty dated to consider LGBT equality as a controversial, hot-button issue like these senators are portraying it to be," the Human Rights Campaign said in a statement this week. "In fact, a strong and diverse majority of Americans support equality. These senators are towing a tired line that no longer represents mainstream opinion, and they’re throwing same-sex couples under the bus in the process."
President Barack Obama included a provision recognizing gay partnerships in his own immigration bill, but has made it clear in recent comments that the Senate measure meets his criteria for an immigration overhaul, even without the provision.
The legislation aims to strengthen border security, create new programs to allow tens of thousands of workers into the U.S. legally while requiring all employers to verify their workers’ legal status, and give eventual citizenship to the 11 million immigrants now here illegally.