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The Nation

It Was a Surprisingly Quick Engagement

Acceptance of gays is now widespread -- but same-sex marriage could be the biggest battle.

August 31, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Zeke Rubin-Moore is 3. He lives with a dog, four zebra finches and two fathers in a remodeled Italian grocery overlooking the Castro, this city's gay neighborhood. Lately, his adoptive parents keep talking hypothetically about marriage, a thing they never thought would matter. Now -- suddenly, somehow -- it does.

Jean McGuire is 83. She lives over the hill from little Zeke's house. Ten years ago, she lost her grown son to AIDS. Though the experience changed her mind on some gay rights, she can't condone homosexual marriage.

"I'm more tolerant now than I used to be, and I think they should have benefits and all that," she said recently, walking to morning Mass at St. Cecilia parish. "But marriage shouldn't apply to same-sex. It isn't marriage if you put it that way."

As those sentiments imply, a storm is gathering over the latest round of victories for gays who seek full acceptance and participation in society. First the Canadian government planned on joining the short list of nations with legalized gay marriage. Then the U.S. Supreme court struck down laws that outlawed gay sex. Then Episcopalians elected an openly gay bishop in the face of calls for a schism.

Now, as state courts take up legalization of same-sex civil marriage, opponents are reviving a proposed constitutional amendment to preempt that -- and anything like that -- from happening.

For many social conservatives, the coming battle is about halting a momentum that has been building for a generation. Although the most recent polls have shown some slippage, tolerance for lesbians and gays in the United States has not only risen over the long term but accelerated in recent decades. Even support for same-sex marriage -- falling since the Supreme Court ruling in June -- is slightly higher than in the mid-1990s.

"The short-term developments this summer are just a little squiggle in a much bigger picture," said William Rubenstein, a law professor at UCLA and the faculty chairman of the Williams Project, a think tank on sexual orientation law.

"The larger sweep of events points to gradual increased acceptance of same-sex couples. The point at which same-sex marriage is recognized in all 50 states is down the line probably," he said. "I do imagine it will happen in my lifetime."

That cannot be allowed, said Glenn Stanton, a senior analyst at Focus on the Family, an evangelical ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"If we say the two forms [of marriage] are equal, we are really saying to children that they don't need both a mother and a father," he said.

Gary Bauer of the lobbying group American Values put it another way: "I think it's fair to say that if the other side wins the debate over the definition of marriage, traditionalists would have to pretty much admit that the culture war is over, and our side lost."

When the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in Texas, the majority reasoned that gays deserved the same privacy and dignity in their homes as heterosexual couples and described same-sex relationships as a constitutionally protected "personal bond."

The next step, advocates on both sides say, is to test whether that equal protection extends to the bond of same-sex civil unions. A pending court challenge in Massachusetts is expected to be appealed to the high court as soon as it is handed down.

A Gallup Poll done after the Supreme Court ruling showed approval of same-sex civil unions down to 40% from 49% a month before. A Washington Post poll this month on the identical question showed still more slippage, to 37% support, amid widespread publicity over the ruling's implications. In a nationwide poll done by Gallup for CNN and USA Today, 50% of Americans favored amending the Constitution to restrict marriage to a woman and a man.

The Federal Marriage Amendment, which died with no action in the last Congress, was reintroduced this summer with 75 House co-sponsors. Senate hearings are scheduled to begin in September.

Bauer and Stanton say they could get an amendment passed in six months if their constituencies -- and, more important, the 30% or so of swing voters who don't think much about gay rights -- were sufficiently outraged.

"It'd be real simple to put 15,000 people on the lawn of a state Capitol demanding that marriage be between a man and a woman," Bauer said. "Not many state legislatures will want to play games with that."

But constitutional amendments are tough to pass, requiring the approval of two-thirds of Congress and ratification of three-quarters of the states. Moreover, some say, a constitutional solution would impinge on states' rights. President Bush, while denouncing gay marriage, has not specifically endorsed the proposed amendment.

In California, voters in 2000 passed a proposition that defined marriage as applying only to a man and a woman. But on Thursday the state Senate passed a measure that would give registered domestic partners many of the same rights and responsibilities as married couples.

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