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Gay marriage divide roils states

A new ruling by Massachusetts' top court and a constitutional convention here next week are escalating a national debate.

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The political divide over gay marriage is escalating in states across the country, and has so far become the focal point of America's culture wars for this election year.

Spurred by a Massachusetts court ruling - reaffirmed this week - that gay marriage is a constitutional right, a backlash is brewing from Georgia to Wisconsin. In an effort to prevent Massachusetts-style court interventions, these states and others are considering moves to define marriage in their constitutions as a union of one man with one woman. Ohio, meanwhile, is poised to enact a law banning civil unions and the awarding of spousal rights to gay couples.

But not all of the new activity opposes new rights for gays and lesbians. Emboldened by legal success in the Bay State, gay- rights advocates are pressing their cause in New Jersey and Arizona.

The result is a burgeoning political fight over one of the most basic concepts in American life - the definition of family and marriage. A key test comes next week, when Massachusetts lawmakers plan to open a rare constitutional convention on the issue. "What we're seeing now is the states tackling this issue with an eye on the fall elections," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. "In a lot of moral issues," state policymaking "works very well."

The legislative maelstrom, combined with President Bush's tacit support for a federal ban on gay marriage during his State of the Union address, point to the growing urgency of the issue on the national stage. It appears to be overshadowing other hot-button social issues such as abortion and school prayer.

A key reason: The sweeping decision last November by the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts - which challenged that state and others to reconsider, with regard to gay rights, constitutional mandates for equal treatment.

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