Tug of war intensifies on gay-marriage issue

Even as bans and limits on same-sex unions spread, some states edge toward civil unions and antidiscrimination laws.

When the Oregon Supreme Court recently ruled that county officials could not decide on their own to legalize same-sex marriages, Tom Potter said he was "especially saddened" for his daughter Katie, her partner Pam Moen, and their two little girls. "Now, I wonder, who will protect Katie and her family?" he asked.

It was a personal lament, putting faces and hearts to a controversial issue. But it also had very clear public and highly political overtones. Mr. Potter is the mayor of Portland, Ore., and the city's former police chief. Ms. Potter and Ms. Moen are both police officers, and they were among the nearly 3,000 gay Oregon couples whose marriages had just been declared illegal.

Six months after voters around the country overwhelmingly rejected same-sex marriage, how to officially treat such couples continues to roil the political waters.

Connecticut recently joined Vermont in legalizing "civil unions," officially recognized bonds designed to afford the same legal protections, rights, and responsibilities as marriage. Oregon soon could become the third such state, as well as joining the seven other states already prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, public accommodation, education, and public services.

Issues involving homosexual couples are spreading across the country in other ways as well. The Catholic Action League of Massachusetts has asked the state's highest court to keep same-sex couples from marrying until voters get a chance to decide the issue. Following a 2003 ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, about 5,000 same-sex couples have gotten married in the Bay State, some traveling from other parts of the country.

Officials in the District of Columbia have been considering whether to allow same-sex couples married in Massachusetts to file joint tax returns. Joe Shirley, the president of the Navajo Nation, just vetoed a unanimous Tribal Council action defining marriage as between a man and a woman. "We have more important issues to address," Mr. Shirley said, referring to domestic violence, sexual assault, and gangs on the Navajo Reservation.

Other recent moves signal a backlash or at least backpedaling on same-sex unions. In Washington State, software giant Microsoft (one of the first companies to provide domestic partner benefits, or to include sexual identity in its antidiscrimination policies) recently announced that it would take a neutral position on legislation that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Microsoft officials denied that the company, which previously had supported the bill, was responding to pressure from conservative clergy.

In Texas, the House of Representatives recently voted to ban lesbians, gays, and bisexuals from being foster parents. The legislation also authorizes the state to investigate the sexual orientation of those already acting as foster parents. In Alabama, a lawmaker is pushing a bill that would prohibit the use of public funds for the purchase of textbooks or library materials that "recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle," including same-sex parents portrayed positively. Asked what he would do with the books, Rep. Gerald Allen (R) said: "I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them."

While polls show that most Americans oppose same-sex marriage, they are increasingly likely to favor civil unions. This is especially true of younger Americans.

Still, some gay activists consider civil unions to be "separate but equal" half measures on the way to fully legalizing same-sex marriage. For this reason, conservative activists are fighting this aspect of what they call the "homosexual agenda" by focusing on civil unions as well. In eight of the 11 states in which voters last November approved state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage - a clean sweep for gay marriage opponents - the ban extended to civil unions as well as.

Publicly supporting civil unions is tricky business for elected officials at a time when the "pro-marriage" movement is gaining political strength, taking names and promising retribution to lawmakers who stray. At the same time as they approved same-sex civil unions, for example, Connecticut legislators (and the Republican governor who signed the bill) made sure the new law also defined marriage as applying only to one man and one woman.

Still, the practical benefits of marriage, or something like it, can be considerable. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon says that Portland police officers Katie Potter and Pam Moen, who have been together for 15 years, are denied many benefits available to their heterosexual colleagues who marry, including a $25,000 death benefit if one of them is killed in the line of duty, as well as health, education, and mortgage benefits.

Oregon's proposed measure would amend state law to create civil unions, defined as a civil contract entered into by two members of the same sex who are at least 17 years old and are not first cousins or closer kin, and who are not parties to a marriage or another civil union.

While it's mainly Democrats lining up behind the measure, some Republicans back it as well. "I'm not supporting this legislation to give special rights to gays and lesbians," says Oregon Sen. Ben Westlund (R). "I'm supporting it because gays and lesbians are human beings."

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