Despite Wins for Gay Marriage, Obstacles Remain

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Erin Siegal / Reuters / Corbis

A couple display their wedding rings after exchanging vows

Gay couples arriving at the White House with their children ready for the Easter Egg Roll on April 13 should be easy enough to spot. They'll be the ones wearing enormous smiles — and not just because the Obama Administration has put out an inclusive welcome sign for the annual romp on the South Lawn. The couples will likely still be celebrating the past week's major victories in the war over marriage rights.

April is shaping up to be a real watershed for the gay-marriage issue. First came the heartland win on April 3 from the Iowa Supreme Court. Then on Tuesday, Vermont's lawmakers defied Governor Jim Douglas with a veto override heard round the world, making their state the nation's first to establish gay marriage by a vote rather than by judicial decree. That same day in Washington, D.C., the city council chose to give legal recognition to gay and lesbian residents who have been married elsewhere.

The sense that something big is happening has been felt by the other side of the battle too. "The momentum seems to be now on the side of those pushing for the legalization of same-sex marriage," the Rev. Albert Mohler told TIME on Wednesday. "The Vermont and Iowa developments seem to signal the fact that, as many of us have sensed for some time, the legalization of same-sex marriage is taking on a sense of inevitability." Mohler is president of the nation's flagship Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, Ky., and one of America's most respected Evangelical thinkers. (See pictures of the Knot's co-founders.)

The implications for society are enormous. "We are watching the moral and social landscape of the nation be transformed before our eyes," Mohler said. "The institution of marriage is so central to human society and, at the same time, so central to Christian theology that it is almost impossible to calculate the magnitude of this challenge. This is a deeply troubling and sobering moment." (See pictures of the busiest wedding day in history.)

But while the battle lines are shifting and new fronts are opening, the war over marriage is anything but over. For one thing, there is the obstacle of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that makes it illegal for the U.S. government — as opposed to individual states — to recognize gay couples as married. Even talk of federally recognized civil unions is meaningless until DOMA is repealed, since the act also prohibits the appearance of marriage, no matter what the relationship is called. It's why gays can't enjoy the tax benefits that straight couples do, for instance, and why spouses of gay federal employees cannot be covered by government health plans. (See a radical solution to the gay-marriage controversy.)

Repealing DOMA, however, will require a presidential push or an unusual amount of energy from congressional Democrats. But like nearly every nationally prominent Democrat — from Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden — Obama has favored civil unions while opposing gay marriage. Although he has promised to work for the repeal of DOMA and to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military, these are not priorities in the Obama White House. As a result, any momentum gay-rights activists may be enjoying now is unlikely to be sustained.

Even if the issue finally gets to the top of Obama's agenda, his position on gay marriage is still troubling to many gay-rights activists, who argue that accepting civil unions is equivalent to kowtowing to separate-but-equal schools for black and white children. Yet what will matter most in the immediate future is whether legislatures in other states will follow the example of Vermont. New Hampshire lawmakers may be the next to decide the fate of gay marriage, with a vote scheduled soon. The issue is on the calendar in other statehouses, too, including New York, New Jersey and Maine.

The outcome of those votes — if they even occur — is uncertain. And there is plenty of reason for gay-marriage hopefuls to temper their expectations. Despite the big steps of the past week, gay marriage remains unpopular in nearly every state (California's Prop. 8 vote being one example). Even in Iowa, last week's unanimous state supreme court decision would likely be overturned were it possible to put the issue to voters anytime soon. And with a federal judiciary — and especially the Supreme Court — dominated by conservative judges appointed by President George W. Bush, a national victory for marriage-equality advocates seems remote at best.

For now, the pressure has been raised for Obama to make good on his promise to support gay rights in a meaningful way. The battle has broken, at least temporarily, in favor of gay marriage. The smiles on the faces of gay-rights supporters have been matched by a somber mood among Evangelicals and others opposed to expanding the definition of marriage. "I am not giving up on this issue, nor assuming that the debate is over," Mohler told TIME. "Clearly, it is not. Yet I do sense that the ground is moving under our feet."

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