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Ruling on gay marriage ignited a national debate

In November, gays and lesbians celebrated a major victory, a Massachusetts court decision permitting, for the first time in US history, men to marry men and women to marry women.

But today, just three months later, the gay rights movement finds itself fighting a string of unintended consequences of the dramatic court ruling.

The national campaign to preserve marriage as a heterosexual institution -- launched by religious conservatives during the Iowa caucuses of 1996 -- has been rejuvenated, placing new legal stumbling blocks in the path of same-sex marriage advocates all around the country.

Some Republican strategists are gleeful, sensing a new, emotional wedge issue they can use to portray Democrats as out of touch with mainstream America.

Gays and lesbians, who have argued that their quest for marriage rights is a matter of fairness and equality, are feeling the sting of vocal opposition to their cause from some of the state's most prominent religious leaders, including its Catholic bishops and many of its black preachers.

And, to top it all off, it remains unclear whether wedding bells will sound on May 17, when the Supreme Judicial Court decision is scheduled to take effect. The Legislature, nearly evenly divided last week over whether to try to amend the constitution to prevent gay marriage, plans to reconvene a constitutional convention March 11, and the state's governor, Mitt Romney, is exploring his legal options as he tries to prevent same-sex marriage.

Some Democrats express concern, particularly because Massachusetts promises to be at the center of the political stage this year with Senator John F. Kerry the party's likely nominee for president and Boston the site for the Democratic convention.

"There is regret that it's come up," said former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian. "It's a distraction. It's something we've got to talk about that isn't going to be the focus of a major campaign effort."

And Republicans make it clear they see the issue as potent.

"Massachusetts has made this the number one cultural issue this year, and it reinforces the perception that the likely Democratic nominee comes from the most liberal state in the country," said Whit Ayres, a Republican political consultant in Virginia.

The decision to push for gay marriage in Massachusetts has intensified a national debate, emboldening both sides of the divisive issue. It spurred state lawmakers in numerous states to step up their efforts to restrict rights and benefits for gay couples. But it also led a city clerk in San Francisco to hand out more than 100 marriage licenses, in violation of California law.

In the gay community, despite broad excitement over the SJC ruling, some privately debate whether the push for marriage was well-timed.

But, in a series of interviews over the last week, advocates of gay marriage said they have no regrets about pushing the issue to the fore.

"I have yet to meet a civil rights movement that's conveniently timed politically," said Mary Bonauto, who represented the gay couples in the Massachusetts case and works as civil rights project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. "Many of these states have latched onto Massachusetts as an excuse to rejuvenate their campaigns to deny gays and lesbians anything, and some bad legislation is obviously passing, but I just think civil rights movements, like this one and others, can be a bit messy."

Gay marriage advocates acknowledge numerous setbacks in other states since the SJC decision, and the potential for a setback here if the state Legislature votes, when the constitutional convention resumes March 11, for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw same-sex marriage.

Thirty-eight states have laws barring same-sex marriage, and several of those states have been moving to tighten their bans through constitutional amendments following the Massachusetts decision.

In Virginia, the House of Delegates voted Friday to give preliminary approval to a measure barring recognition of civil unions and domestic partnerships; in Ohio, Governor Bob Taft on Feb. 6 signed a measure denying statutory benefits such as inheritance rights to couples who are not married.

"It is necessary for us to act now to safeguard Ohio's marriage laws because the Massachusetts Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, redefined marriage in that state, holding that a denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples was a violation of the Massachusetts Constitution," Taft said in a statement. "Four judges in another state should not, and cannot, hold the power to redefine marriage in Ohio."

The national fallout was feared by gay marriage advocates even as the court case began in April 2001, when seven same-sex couples filed a lawsuit seeking marriage licenses.

More than two years later, on Nov. 18, 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled, by a one-vote margin, "We declare that barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution."

As gays and lesbians prepare to seek marriage licenses on May 17 -- the day the decision takes effect -- a variety of religious and political groups are pushing the Legislature to block the ruling. State lawmakers, meeting in constitutional convention last Wednesday and Thursday, debated amending the constitution -- a process that would take two years -- to bar same sex marriages. But several proposals, some of which would have created civil unions for gays, were defeated, and the Legislature adjourned the convention until March 11.

Same-sex marriage advocates say Massachusetts is just another step in a long process; litigation is already underway in New Jersey and Indiana, for example, and they expect to win marriage rights slowly.

"As in any civil rights movement, there are advances and there are attacks and there is progress and there is resistance, and ours is no different," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group that advocates for same-sex marriage rights.

Some gay rights advocates say the debate itself helps their cause, because it forces Americans to think about the issue. They note that many critics of gay marriage are supporting civil unions -- a status that was quite controversial when it was enacted in Vermont just four years ago -- and that the antigay invective once associated with debates about gay rights matters has been pushed to the margins. They say public leaders such as President Bush and Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley are careful to explain that they are not antigay when they outline their opposition to marriage rights.

In a memo on gay rights and the 2004 election, GOP pollster Bill McInturff noted that America has become far more accepting of gays in the last decade.

"It is among the most significant attitudinal shifts in public opinion over the past generation," he wrote.

Conservative groups have made the gay marriage issue a top priority since 1996, when activists, many of them from evangelical Christian groups, launched a "National Campaign to Protect Marriage" in Iowa. Several such groups have been active in the Massachusetts debate, including Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, and are pushing to see a federal constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage.

Kerry, who says he supports civil unions but not gay marriage, was one of a handful of Senate Democrats who in 1996 opposed a federal Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as heterosexual. Bush has suggested that protecting heterosexual marriage is a priority for him, and conservative groups widely expect him to endorse a federal amendment.

But Republican and Democratic political consultants say the issue is risky for both parties.

"The problem is, in articulating a contrary point of view, it becomes suspicious and tinged with homophobia and other negative expressions toward homosexuality," said Rich Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Why get sucked into a debate that is full of negativism and so vulnerable to misinterpretation?"

The Same-Sex Marriage Debate
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