The Battle Over Gay Marriage

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PAUL KAPTEYN/WORCESTER TELEGRAM & GAZETTE/AP

Mass Voices for Traditional Marriage founder Laurie Letourneau rallies in Worcester, Mass.

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The proposed amendment got a big push last week, and it is likely to get another in May, when pictures of lesbians kissing their brides will be broadcast round the world. (One caveat: there is still a slim chance that gay-marriage opponents in the Bay State — including G.O.P. Governor Mitt Romney — will find a way to stop the marriages before May. But the state's highest court is not likely to approve any delays, so stopping gay weddings would probably mean outright defiance of the court. Most observers don't think Romney would risk his future on an Orval Faubus ploy.)

By May the Bush machine will be in high gear. You can expect that if Kerry is the nominee, plenty of television commercials accusing Kerry of being a Massachusetts liberal will air during breaks from newscasts about the latest gay wedding. Another problem for Kerry may lie across the continent in California, a state any Democrat must carry to win the White House. This week assemblyman Mark Leno is expected to introduce a bill in the California legislature that would legalize gay marriage. Gay activists plan an all-out battle. "Our goal is to be the first state in the nation to [legalize gay marriage] through the democratic process as opposed to the courts," says Toni Broaddus of Equality California, the state's leading gay-advocacy group. The last thing the Democrats want in California is a conservative base energized by a bloody gay-marriage fight over the summer.

But it gets worse. Because of Massachusetts, other states will be considering constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage. In fact, some 20 states have already introduced (or are expected to introduce) such amendments, according to the Human Rights Campaign. "I fear all this will create a backlash so much more powerful than our community is prepared to handle," says Matt Foreman of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

For now, Kerry's advisers say they aren't worried their candidate will be mauled in the showdown. "The court has decided one thing, and Kerry has said he disagrees," says a senior Kerry adviser. Every time the Republicans bring up the issue, they give Kerry "the opportunity to highlight that his view isn't the traditional Massachusetts-liberal view." Kerry himself snapped last week, "I have the same position that Vice President Dick Cheney has. [The Republicans] ought to talk to Dick Cheney ... before they start playing games with this. And we'll find out just how political and how craven they are." Kerry was referring to Cheney's statement during the 2000 campaign that he believes the issue of rights for gay couples "is regulated by the states. I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate." Cheney's daughter is a lesbian, and many gays hoped he would openly support same-sex marriage. But last month Cheney told the Denver Post that he will support whatever position the President takes, even if that means backing a ban on gay marriages.

The gay-marriage debate, because it touches the emotional and social fabric that makes up family, can be brutal. Last March in Nebraska, the attorney general issued an opinion saying that under the state's constitution, gay people do not have the right to make burial arrangements for their partners. The generally civil members of the Massachusetts court were barely civil to one another by the time they issued their second opinion. In her ruling, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall said Justice Sosman, who had dissented, "so clearly misses the point that further discussion appears to be useless." It is a small sign that tempers are likely to flare when the national debate begins.

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