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In California, a battle over gay marriages

A ballot initiative over whether homosexual unions are legal will set a

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One of the most contentious social debates of this decade, whether homosexuals should be allowed to legally marry, is headed for a donnybrook in California early next year.

With America's largest gay population and a track record of defining new social policy for the nation as a whole, California will decide on March 7 whether to prohibit gay marriages and refuse to recognize them should any other state legalize them.

The campaign is already under way and could give this state's presidential primary, also on the March 7 ballot, a run for its money in terms of interest and fireworks. Indeed, many analysts liken the issue, in terms of its passion and significance, to recent California actions on social policies concerning affirmative action, illegal immigration, and bilingual education.

For the nation, "this is going to be the Waterloo on this issue," predicts Robert Glazier of the Protection of Marriage Committee, the main California group backing the March initiative.

Taking a more historical view, many analysts say social accommodation of gay couples and their children will be a prominent issue over the next decade.

"What's happening in California is just part of a 10- to 15-year discussion that, in an historic sense, is really just beginning," says Michael Wald, a law professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and author of a recent analysis of the issue.

The issue has been roiling for several years in a number of states and at the federal level.

President Clinton signed the Federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, stipulating that while states could determine for themselves what constitutes marriage, when it comes to federal matters the US government would only recognize marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Many states followed suit, and today some 30 states have defined marriage as only applicable to a man and a woman.

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