Protecting marriage or marginalizing homosexuals?

An initiative on California's March 7 ballot to invalidate same-sex marriage is reverberating across the US.

The wording seems simple: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

But behind the 14-word phrase - the shortest state initiative in history, now on California's March 7 ballot - is a firestorm of debate over gay rights and same-sex marriage that could domino through dozens of states.

Supporters say the initiative is a way for the state to prevent the redefinition (or erosion) of marriage by disallowing homosexual couples from marrying in other states, then moving to California and expecting their unions to be valid here.

Detractors say the measure is an unnecessary tool that will further marginalize a small minority without just cause. They say its passage could be used to repeal domestic-partner benefits and other laws that now benefit gays and lesbians in California and other states.

"Many within the state, and without, fear [the new law] might empower other cities and states to repeal workplace and housing laws [that benefit gays] or be used to repeal nondiscrimination clauses that have been hard-won in recent years." says Peter Nardi, professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.

California is not the first state to address the issue. In 1996, Congress passed a bill saying the US government defines marriage as between a man and woman only, and 30 states have since passed laws following suit.

But Mr. Nardi says California's debate has become a lightning rod because of the state's size, as well as the fact that the initiative process has made the debate more public. So far, only the relatively sparsely populated states of Hawaii and Alaska have passed definition-of-marriage laws by initiative.

"Because California is such a large state with a liberal history, this debate has reached a fever pitch," he says.

Spokesmen for Proposition 22, also known as the "California Protection of Marriage Initiative," say the measure is intended to change a 128-year-old state policy that recognizes all marriages performed in other states once a given couple has moved to California.

"We don't think the state should have to recognize marriages from another state who defines marriage differently than we do," says Prop. 22 spokesman Robert Glazier. "We want to determine ourselves what the institution will be in our state - a contract between men and women."

But opponents say they are suspicious of that motive because the state already has a law stating only a man and woman may marry.

"Prop. 22 appears to be very simplistic, merely about defining traditional marriage," says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a co-chair of the "No on 22" campaign. "But the most insidious aspect is how misleading the campaign is and how purposefully campaign officials avoid talking about its real agenda."

That real agenda, says Ms. Kendell, is rolling back or blocking the "fragile protections that lesbian and gay couples currently enjoy, [by] using Prop. 22 as ammunition."

She says the states of Florida, Illinois, Virginia, and Washington have seen campaigns by right-wing organizations to invalidate domestic-partnership ordinances. And a lesbian couple in Idaho who were seeking their second adoption (the couple had already adopted an older child) were refused by a court citing a statute with language similar to that of Prop. 22.

Moreover, because no other states have legalized same-sex marriages, California has nothing to worry about, detractors say.

"To me this is a needless proposition," says Nardi. "This has done nothing but create divisiveness and polarization between religious organizations and within both parties."

Such polarities are already showing within conservative Republican and Democratic ranks.

"The demographics of who is for and against this is quite interesting," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Poll, which currently finds the "yes" side leading, 53 percent to 40 percent, statewide. He notes that while the liberal Bay area is opposed by a 5-to-3 margin, the also liberal Los Angeles region favors it by 5 to 4.

"Usually these strongly Democratic constituencies mirror each other," says Mr. DiCamillo.

The difference can be attributed to voting patterns of the growing Latino population. "There tends to be a far more conservative leaning in the traditional Latino population," he says. "That is accounting for the difference."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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