The Republican-led House voted Thursday to prevent federal courts from ordering states to recognize gay marriages sanctioned by other states.
The Marriage Protection Act was adopted by a 233-194 vote, buoyed by backing from the Bush administration. Last week, the Senate dealt gay marriage opponents a setback by failing to advance a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions.
Federal judges, unelected and given lifetime appointments, "must not be allowed to rewrite marriage policy for the states," Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., said.
Democrats said the bill was an election-year distraction, calling it an unconstitutional attack on gays in America and the federal judiciary. They said it would set a precedent that Congress could use to shield any future legislation from federal judicial review.
"They couldn't amend the Constitution last week so they're trying to desecrate and circumvent the Constitution this week," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said.
The legislation faces long odds in the closely divided Senate, but were it to become law, gays and lesbians seeking to have their marriages recognized could seek help only from state courts.
It would strip the Supreme Court and other federal courts of their jurisdiction to rule on challenges to state bans on same-sex marriages under a provision of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. That law defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and says states are not compelled to recognize same-sex marriages that take place in other states.
"Marriage is under attack," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., referring to the Massachusetts state court decision allowing same-sex marriages. The legislation is needed, Sensenbrenner said, to prevent Massachusetts law from being applied nationwide.
A parade of Republican speakers lamented the unbridled power of federal judges to thwart majority will, although no federal court has yet ruled on the 1996 law.
Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., the bill's author, likened the Supreme Court to the Soviet Politburo. "As few as five people in black robes can look at a particular issue and determine for the rest of us, insinuate for the rest of us that they are speaking as the majority will. They are not," Hostettler said.
Democrats complained the legislation was being pushed to give a victory to same-sex marriage opponents before Congress leaves town at the end of the week for both parties' political conventions and a monthlong recess.
Republicans are "undermining our Constitution today to get more votes in November," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said.
The effect of the bill would be to single out gays and lesbians, barring them from going into federal court to seek to have their marriages recognized, several Democrats said.
"We face no less than a sign on the courthouse door: 'You may not defend your constitutional rights in this court. You may not see equal protection here,"' said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the House's lone declared lesbian. "Today, the 'you' is gay and lesbian citizens. But who would be next?"
Democrats said the bill's supporters were trying to change the subject from GOP failures to pass a budget and other major legislation.
Many speakers said they believe the legislation is unconstitutional, but legal scholars said the constitutional issue is unresolved.
While Republicans defended states' rights, Democrats said the phrase recalled Southern opposition to desegregation, which was propelled by a series of federal court rulings.
Some Republicans also cited their desire to avoid setting a precedent that could used by a Congress controlled by Democrats to satisfy their allies or by lawmakers who wanted to shield future unconstitutional legislation from federal court review.