The Battle Over Gay Marriage


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

    Our marriages often provoke us to throw the china and utter the unforgivables. The context is usually personal, not political, but either way, passions run high. In May, barring some unforeseen procedural hindrance, gay couples will wed for the first time ever in the U.S. They will have that opportunity by order of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled last week that it is unconstitutional to deny them marriage licenses. Gays and lesbians across the country celebrated. Hundreds of gay people have already called or e-mailed town clerk Doug Johnstone in Provincetown, Mass., to ask when they can marry. One of the licenses Johnstone's office will issue will be his own. After 25 years together, he and his partner will finally have the chance to say their vows before the commonwealth.

    Many other Americans are worried that even though a freedom has been granted, an institution has been threatened. "If we have homosexual marriage mainstream, I can't even describe to you what our culture will be like," warns Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, one of the leading anti-gay-marriage organizations. Many conservatives object that such a monumental social change was sanctioned by such a small group — four of seven judges on the Massachusetts court. "We're hearing from people throughout the country," says a hoarse Glenn Stanton, spokesman for Focus on the Family, a conservative group in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They don't know which to be more outraged at — the death of marriage or the death of democracy."

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    Marriage may or may not be dead, but democracy is doing fine. The court decision has intensified efforts to pass a U.S. constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. One version of the amendment already has more than 100 cosponsors in Congress. (Two-thirds of both houses will be required to pass the amendment, which will then have to be ratified by at least three-quarters--38--of the states.) Conservative activists will make sure that voters hear a lot about gay marriage between now and November since the likely Democratic nominee for President, Senator John Kerry, comes from Massachusetts. By unhappy coincidence, the Democrats will also hold their convention in Boston this summer. "It could be like Chicago 1968," says gay-marriage foe Ray Flynn, a former Democratic mayor of Boston and ambassador to the Vatican, who is now president of Your Catholic Voice. "The country will see the party as taken over by the radical left."

    Last Thursday, at various campaign stops, Kerry was forced to say — over and over, to the point of understandable exasperation — that he opposes gay marriage and disagrees with his state's court ruling. But he also favors civil unions for gay couples and would vote against a U.S. constitutional amendment. You can find a consistent line here: Kerry thinks the matter should be left to states. But in a debate as raw as the one over same-sex unions, President Bush's simple position — marriage should be between a man and a woman — will be easier to explain, not least because a clear majority of Americans also hold it. In a TIME/CNN poll conducted last week, 62% of respondents said they oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage; less than a third favor it.

    But the President remembers the lessons of 1992, when moderate voters punished his father for a G.O.P. convention loaded with extremist declamations on the culture wars. Bush the son is careful to avoid coarse language about gays and lesbians. As Air Force One flew to South Carolina last week, the President made clear his opposition to gay marriage but added, "I'm not against anybody," according to Jim DeMint, a Republican Congressman who was aboard. "If some people want to have a contract, that's O.K., but marriage is the foundation of society."

    Though it was an offhand comment, the idea that Bush might favor some kind of "contract" for gay couples — presumably a type of state recognition — is astonishing when you look back at the brief history of the gay-marriage debate. As recently as 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court issued the first appellate-court ruling in favor of gay marriage (a ruling that never took effect because Hawaiians voted to amend their constitution), even domestic partnerships were still considered radical. Only a few liberal municipalities offered them — Berkeley and West Hollywood in California, for example — and they didn't cover much. You could get a certificate suitable for framing and the assurance that a hospital within city limits would let you visit a sick partner. That was about it. FORTUNE 500 companies were only beginning to allow partners of gay and lesbian employees to buy into health insurance plans. Most big cities didn't offer their employees such arrangements; in 1993 plans to extend health benefits to same-sex partners of city employees in Atlanta and Seattle caused great public consternation.

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