America's deeply rooted religious convictions are coming to the fore on the most contentious issue to face the country since abortion.
The debate over homosexuality, which has long stirred anguish within some denominations, now shifts to society as a whole following the Massachusetts court decision on Tuesday declaring that gays and lesbians have equal rights to civil marriage. Other state legislatures and courts as well as the US Congress are expected to jump into the fray.
While tolerance toward homosexuals and support for their rights have risen dramatically in recent decades, the marriage issue has cut into that trend to galvanize strong opposition. And religious beliefs underpin the backlash, according to a national survey released this week.
Since July, opposition to gay marriage has risen from 53 percent to 59 percent, and among those who call themselves highly religious, to 80 percent. Clergy in many churches are preaching on homosexuality about as often as abortion or school prayer, the survey found, and having an impact on worshipers' views.
At the same time, the two largest US denominations - Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist - last week issued lengthy public declarations on the sacred nature and societal import of marriage and urged rejection of any redefinition.
With constitutional rights now an immediate concern in both the US and Canada, Americans on both sides of the question are intensifying efforts for public support. "This will be the issue for Evangelicals and many Catholics in the 2004 election," says the Rev. Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader. "At the presidential, senatorial, congres- sional and state legislative levels, every candidate will be asked, 'Will you vote to ratify a federal marriage amendment?'"
An amendment introduced in the US House last spring by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) of Colorado defines marriage as only between a man and a woman and says that neither state nor US constitutions or laws could confer the status "or legal incidents thereof" on others. Political leaders are debating whether the federal Defense of Marriage law already passed by Congress is sufficient or if an amendment is needed due to court actions.
Those on the other side seek to counter that push and press the case for civil marriage as distinct from religious rites.
"While we disagree with the churches, we recognize they have the right to decide what marriages they will perform, just as the Catholic church does with divorce," says Laura Montgomery Rutt, spokesperson for Soulforce, a group promoting full acceptance within churches. "But government has the obligation to ensure equality for all; civil rights won't affect the freedoms of religious institutions."
Still, the survey of 1,515 adults, conducted in October by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, shows that the majority of Americans continue to harbor deep concerns about homosexual practice. Some 55 percent consider it a sin, though of those, 80 percent say it isn't any more so than adultery. Yet a slim majority, 51 percent, is even against allowing legal agreements that fall short of marriage.
The most common reasons given for opposing gay marriage include that it is "morally wrong or inconsistent with the Bible" (28%); "against my religious beliefs" (17%); or that "marriage is between a man and a woman" (16%).
It's clear, too, that attitudes are greatly shaped by perceptions of the cause and nature of homosexuality.
When asked why people are gay or lesbian, 30 percent of Americans say it is something they are born with, 14 percent say it relates to how they are brought up, and 42 percent say it is "the way some prefer to live."
The public is evenly divided on whether homosexual orientation can be changed - 42 to 42 percent - while 16 percent "don't know." People who believe it is a choice and can be changed are far more opposed to gay marriage, while those who see it as an in-born trait are more in favor.
Personal contact with homosexuals is also crucial in shaping views, the survey shows. Americans of all ages who have a friend, colleague, or family member who is gay or lesbian are roughly twice as likely to favor equal marriage rights as those who do not.
"This is about familiarity, about knowing people who are leading responsible, committed, and loving family lives," says the Rev. Debra Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister. "It's unconscionable that people raising children don't get all the rights of parenthood that my husband and I do."
Indeed, along with the negative views, the survey revealed positive perceptions that counter stereotypes: 52 percent of Americans believe gays and lesbians are as likely as others to have stable relationships, and 54 percent believe they can be as good parents as heterosexual couples.
Yet 56 percent also worry that gay marriage would undermine the traditional family. Almost half (predominantly Republican) say the entertainment media now includes too many gay themes and characters.
"Marriage is such a foundational social institution, instituted by God, and by its nature the union of a man and a woman," says Richard McCord, of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Using Vatican materials issued last summer and the bishops' recent statement, the church is promoting educational efforts in local parishes and considering a coalition with other churches to press for the federal amendment.
"We've got two-thirds in the US House [in favor of the amendment] and closer to two-thirds in the Senate than people might think, and it will be a lot closer after November 2004," Dr. Land predicted a few weeks ago.
Proponents of equal marriage rights say that the current amendment language would not simply maintain the traditional definition but undermine existing rights approved by state and local governments. Many religious leaders continue to promote the full acceptance of gays and lesbians by churches.
While Americans have become increasingly accepting of homosexuality, their religiosity stands out in comparison with other nations.
A bare 51 percent in the US say it should be accepted, in contrast to 64 percent in Japan, 69 percent in Canada, 74 percent in Britain, and 83 percent in Germany and the Czech Republic. Latin American nations are similar to the US, while Russia, Muslim countries, and African states are far less accepting.