Left-leaning evangelical leader and same-sex marriage supporter Jim Wallace warned on Wednesday that tangling gay rights with immigration reform legislation currently being debated in the Senate would be the wrong thing to do at this time, and gay rights advocates are not happy with his comments.
"I support equal protection under the law but I think this is the wrong place in the wrong time to try and resolve this contentious issue. This must be a bipartisan bill. Our focus must be on the 11 million undocumented and vulnerable people who this is their time, their chance, this is their moment," said Wallis, who is also president and CEO of Sojourners.
His statement came during a half hour press call with leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), which launched their "Pray for Reform" campaign on Wednesday that calls for the passage of new immigration reform legislation in 92 days.
Thursday marked the beginning of the amendment process in the Senate Judiciary Committee for a bipartisan immigration reform bill hammered out after months of hard work by the Senate's "Gang of Eight."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), however, has sponsored a contentious amendment that would allow U.S. citizens in long-term same-sex relationships to sponsor foreign partners for green cards. According to one report, although the authors of the bill have vowed to block "poison pill" amendments from derailing the legislation, Leahy's amendment is already ringing like a fire alarm.
In his comments on Wednesday, however, Wallis, who was responding to a question from a reporter on whether or not the EIT would support an immigration reform bill with a gay rights amendment, could not stress enough that the marriage between the two issues was inappropriate for the time.
"I think no matter what our views on equal protection under the law, we've got to all focus on making this a successful bipartisan effort that really does change the lives of 11 million people. That's going to be our focus. Wrong place and wrong time for other contentious issues to come up that will be and can be resolved in other venues but not here and not now," he said firmly.
In his response to the question, outgoing president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention Dr. Richard Land said the priority in the debate on immigration reform debate should be fostering bipartisan support for a bill that works for everyone. If the gay rights amendment is accepted, he said, the Southern Baptist Convention would not support it.
"As we launched the prayer for reform effort we're praying that respectful bipartisan debate will continue and that Congress will follow through and pass broad bipartisan immigration reform in the coming months," said Land.
"I'm speaking now not for the Coalition but for the Southern Baptists. This bill will remain an immigration bill and will not get tangled up with the issue of gay rights. If it did, Southern Baptist Convention would not be able to support the bill," he added.
Despite Wallis' liberal stance on gay rights, however, one gay blog blared on Thursday that his comments were like a treacherous knife in the back of the gay community.
"Wallis, incredibly, organized a media conference call with renowned gay-hater and right-wing knuckle-dragger Richard Land of the Baptists (who famously claimed that women who get an abortion are psychologically impaired) in order to kill any effort to address the problems gay couples face with immigration," noted the blog.
"For the record, it's not about 'gay marriage,' Mr. Wallis," the blog post continued. "It's about gay couples being ripped apart by the US immigration system because their relationships aren't recognized as legitimate. If they were straight, their spouses could stay. But because they're gay, they can't. So spare us the Rush-Limbaugh Gary-Bauer Rick-Santorum talking points about how we're pushing for 'gay marriage' in the immigration bill. We're fighting for the immigration rights of our loved ones."
Of the more than 300 amendments proposed by members of the Judiciary panel, the gay rights issue is arguably the most contentious. The four Republican members of the Gang of Eight, which includes Florida's Marco Rubio, have already declared to their Democratic colleagues that this amendment would kill the bill if it is adopted.
Democratic member of the Gang of Eight and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said on Tuesday that he is a strong advocate of the amendment but wouldn't say how he would vote if it came up in the committee.
"I support it and hope we can find a way to resolve it. It's a fair thing to do," Durbin said.
Another Democratic member of the Gang, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who is a co-sponsor of legislation that served as a model for the amendment, Uniting American Families Act.
Both Democrats are members of the Judiciary Committee and either of them could vote against it. Democrats control 10 seats on the panel while Republicans control only eight. Other Democratic members will reportedly back Leahy's amendment. He also filed another amendment exempting the immigration status of same-sex couples from restrictions established by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) if a state or another country recognizes their unions.