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.
The courts have been involved, too. Hawaii looked at one point as if it would be the first state to allow gay marriage, but a series of legal developments culminating in a state supreme court ruling late last week has preserved a ban on same-sex marriage in that state.
A decision from the Supreme Court in Vermont is anticipated any time regarding a challenge to that state's ban on gay marriages.
Indeed, the possibility that Vermont will permit such unions is being used in the literature of those advocating the California ban as an example of how quickly the landscape could change. Once gay marriage is permitted in any state, a gay couple could marry there, move to California, and be regarded as legally married.
That, in essence, is the real significance of the ballot initiative. California already prohibits gay marriage, but it does not prohibit recognition of gay marriages performed in another state. Most states have a tradition of honoring marriages from other states, even if they run contrary to their own marriage criteria.
Advocates of gay rights see the California battle as hugely significant. A defeat here would be a major thumping, in a place that is often more socially tolerant than the whole country.
Equally though, advocates see the potential for a national turnaround on the issue if they prevail in defeating the California ballot proposal.
"This is all part of a larger assault on gay rights," says Evan Wolfson, director of the marriage project for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. "It's an attempt to write discrimination into the law and try to chill the public against supporting gay people's civil rights."
Right now, opinion surveys indicate the California "limit on marriage" initiative has the support of 58 percent of likely voters and is opposed by 38 percent. But those numbers are apt to narrow as the election draws nearer.
While more and more states are precluding marriage for homosexuals, the country generally has been expanding benefits for them through domestic-partner policies. Earlier this year, California followed in the footsteps of a few other states in granting health and other benefits to the gay partners of state employees. The private sector has also extended a number of benefits to domestic partners.
Yet opponents of marriage prohibitions for homosexuals worry that these expanding rights will be whittled away over time as states become more overtly hostile to gay marriage. They say there is already evidence that when states ban gay marriages, court challenges routinely follow arguing that if the state's expressed view is opposed to gay marriages, then benefits for gay partners are inconsistent.
Mr. Wald says that while opposition to gay marriage springs from a range of moral and religious views, the real question is not whether gay partnerships will occur, but how society will accommodate them.
By his estimates there are 400,000 gay partnerships in California and many of these are families with children.
After surveying much of the studies available on the impact of such partnerships, he concludes, "there is no reason to believe that same-sex marriages will function any differently from opposite-sex marriages in terms of commitment, stability, and parenting or that the recognition of these marriages will have negative effects on society in general."
Opponents, however, believe gay rights can be adequately preserved in domestic-partner arrangements and that the California initiative "merely affirms the irreplaceable role of marriage between men and women in our society."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society