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Debate heats up over same-sex marriages

In New England, gay-rights cases signal there is no simple path to consensus.

In recent weeks New England has become the focal point for the latest intense legal battles over legitimizing homosexual partnerships.

Across the US, many communities have inched toward granting homosexuals the rights that come with marriage - such as health-insurance benefits and legal status as parents. And with equal fervency, opponents have argued that American society will be threatened if the definition of marriage extends beyond the traditional form of one woman and one man.

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The questions at issue are likely to confront generations to come: Should gay and lesbian relationships be sanctioned, and to what degree?

There is no simple path to consensus - in the courts and in society at large - as the New England cases show:

*A plan to extend insurance benefits to the domestic partners of Boston's employees was struck down recently by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. For cities to grant such benefits, the legislature would have to change a 1967 law that gives coverage only to spouses and dependent children.

*The same court recently expanded the parental rights of homosexuals. A gay partner who co-parents a child can be entitled to visitation rights after a breakup, it ruled. Only a few other states recognize such "de facto" parents, and many do not allow homosexuals to adopt.

*In Vermont, a ruling is pending in a Supreme Court case brought by several gay couples who were refused marriage licenses. Some advocates say the court is likely to approve same-sex marriage, and that, unlike in Alaska and Hawaii, the state's constitutional amendment process would make it difficult to counteract such a decision.

*Even church disputes have wound up in court. A group of parishioners filed suit in Plymouth County last week against the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. The worshippers were banned from church grounds because they tried to split from the diocese after it voted to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Striving to be recognized

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The push for recognition of family ties among homosexuals has surged in recent years for several reasons. For one, the movement has largely achieved some of its earlier objectives, such as bringing homosexuality "out of the closet" and convincing more of the public that homosexuals should not be discriminated against in jobs or housing. Asking for equal rights when it comes to forming families is a natural next step, says Kenneth Sherrill, a political scientist at the City University of New York's Hunter College.

"Gay people are starting to feel ... entitled to the benefits" that come with marriage, adds Beatrice Dohrn, legal director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, a gay-rights group.

During the AIDS crisis, issues related to health-care, insurance benefits, and inheritance came to the forefront. And as the baby-boom generation of activists has aged, family issues have become more important. One advocacy group estimates that the number of gay and lesbian parents nationwide tops 4 million.

Private employers have been quicker than governments to grant benefits in recognition of these long-term homosexual relationships. About one-fourth of companies with at least 5,000 workers accommodate unmarried couples, according to Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. About 50 cities and four states offer such benefits to their employees.

The discussion about legalizing same-sex marriages - in court rooms and around dinner tables - has accelerated at a pace that surprises even some advocates. And with that thrust, the opposition has been galvanized.

In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which says states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages if they are legalized in other states. It also defines marriage, for the purposes of federal agencies and Congress, as between one man and one woman. Proponents are pushing similar laws in the states. "When you're dealing with symbolic benefits - as opposed to tangible benefits - those are much more contested areas," says Mr. Sherrill. The arguments against both domestic-partnership plans and same-sex marriage emphasize the importance of heterosexual unions. The state benefits from promoting traditional families that can produce children, the taxpayers of the future, says the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition in Washington. And although single parents can raise children, the best situation is a mother and father, he says.

Public sends mixed message

The majority of Americans apparently agree. Sixty-two percent said in a recent Gallup poll that gay marriage should not be legal. By contrast, 83 percent said homosexuals should have equal employment rights. Gay-rights advocates say it's only a matter of time before public resistance fades away.

But others are equally determined to ensure marriage survives in its present form. It is the chief vehicle for passing on values in American society, says Vincent McCarthy of The American Center for Law and Justice, which brought the successful court challenge against Boston's domestic-partnership plan. "It can't be modified without destroying it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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