Gay marriage looms as 'battle of our times'
As Senate prepares to argue marriage amendment, room for compromise between religious freedom and equal rights seems thin.
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Religious leaders on both sides of the Marriage Protection Amendment have formed coalitions, demonstrating that religious perceptions vary considerably.Skip to next paragraph
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Some 50 leaders from Roman Catholic, Mormon, Southern Baptist, Orthodox, Evangelical, and Orthodox Jewish traditions formed the Religious Coalition for Marriage, focused on strengthening its traditional role in society. They see the amendment as essential to protect "marriage from ... activist courts determined to reinterpret this fundamental institution ... against the will of the American people," says Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention.
(A recent Gallup poll found 58 percent of Americans opposing same-sex marriage and 39 percent favoring it. The country is split on a constitutional amendment: 50 percent in favor, 47 percent opposed.)
On the other side, Clergy for Fairness - including leaders from mainline Protestant and Reform Jewish denominations - says that people of faith disagree on same-sex marriage and that religious denominations, not the federal government, should decide whether they'll sanctify marriages. The group also says it opposes the amendment because it would mark the first time the Constitution would be used "to restrict the rights of an entire group of Americans."
Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor active on gay rights issues, argues that the government should view both heterosexuality and homosexuality as morally neutral - "though how you 'deploy' your sexual activity can be very morally laden," she says.
"It's an incredible stain on the government that it is denying governmental structures for loving relationships and families," she adds. Yet she acknowledges the genuine difficulty that same-sex marriage presents for some religious people.
"I'd like gay people to understand that when religious people have to do something against their belief," Professor Feldblum says, "that impinges on their deep sense of self, just as I would like religious people to understand that when gay people are told they ... can't marry their loved one, that impinges on that person's deep sense of self." She's wary of granting religious waivers on these issues, however.
In Gallagher's view, "We are in a situation where courts are declaring our great historic, cross-cultural understanding of marriage to be a form of bigotry. That's a very destructive message," when research shows that children do much better in households with a mother and a father.
Others worry about the harm litigation battles could do. "People on both sides see this as good vs. evil," says the First Amendment Center's Dr. Haynes, "and those positions are going to tear us apart, deeply hurt the nation and our commitment to civil rights and religious freedom."
Haynes has just worked with groups on both sides to develop sexual-orientation guidelines for public schools.
"I've been involved in brokering nine different guidelines on issues like the Bible and religious holidays, and this has been the hardest," Haynes says. After eight months, Christian educators and a gay group involved in school issues did agree on a process for local districts to use that each side thought was fair. Whether local districts pick up on the guidelines remains to be seen.
Clamor over textbooks, for example, has erupted in Massachusetts and in Canada, where kindergartners are being introduced to stories about families with same-sex parents. Although schools must reflect the legal status of such relationships in the curriculum, some parents are demanding notice and protections.
"Some will ask why those parents should be given consideration," Haynes says. "The answer is that this is America, and we try to do the best we can to protect the religious liberty of even the smallest minority.... This takes more work than simply saying 'winner takes all.' "
Yet who is going to broker common ground is the question as advocates on both sides seek complete victory. Legal experts expect a patchwork of legislation and court decisions to emerge.
"Then we will have to worry about how to deal with the fact we have different rules in different states," Mr. Stern says. "If two or three big states move to same-sex marriage, however, it's not going to work to have different definitions across the US."