Another Setback for Same-Sex Marriage

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Gay-marriage advocates had hoped that a favorable decision in Washington State would help boost support for their cause nationwide. But just the opposite happened. Washington's Supreme Court ruled yesterday to uphold its ban on gay marriage, stating that a 1998 prohibition against state recognition of gay unions "bears a reasonable relationship to legitimate state interests," among them "the well-being of children."

It was the second such decision in the U.S. this month, coming less than three weeks after the highest court in New York State issued a similar ruling. With other setbacks for the gay marriage movement this summer in Georgia, Nebraska and Tennessee, the Washington decision only added to a sense of lost momentum for gay-marriage activists. The ruling leaves Massachusetts as still the only state in the nation to have legalized gay marriage.

In a letter to gay-marriage supporters encouraging them to keep their spirits up, Kevin Cathcart, executive director for the national gay-rights group Lambda Legal, urged gay-marriage advocates to take a long view and said that he believed Washington State's decision would eventually be reversed. "In the fight for civil rights, one is often forced to take a few steps back before gaining big steps forward," he said. "Time and again, we've seen the words of dissenting judges in civil-rights cases ultimately become the law of the land, and we believe today is no different."

Justice Barbara A. Madsen, writing for a plurality of the court's 5-4 majority, said the Washington state legislature "was entitled to believe that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples furthers procreation, essential to survival of the human race, and furthers the well-being of children by encouraging families where children are reared in homes headed by the children's biological parents."

She rejected arguments by gay-rights activists that Washington's 1998 "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA) — which limited marriage to one man and one woman and was passed despite the objections of the state's Democratic governor — violated the state constitution's requirements to treat all citizens equally. "DOMA treats both sexes the same," Madsen wrote. "Neither a man nor a woman may marry a person of the same sex."

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Mary Fairhurst called the majority's opinion "blatant discrimination." She argued that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples in no way helps heterosexual couples raise their children, as the majority opinion suggested. "There is no rational basis for denying same-sex couples the right to marry," Fairhurst wrote.

This battle is far from over, and the movement make take even more hits. Other marriage decisions are currently pending in the high courts of Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland and California. A New Jersey state supreme court is expected to issue its ruling later this summer.