Tougher gay marriage bans sought in many states

BY admin

January 24 2004 1:00 AM ET

Despite laws on the books already banning gay marriage, legislators in at least nine states are pushing for new, more sweeping measures in hopes of preventing any ripple effect from laws and court rulings elsewhere. In most cases, Republican lawmakers in states with existing Defense of Marriage acts seek to go a step further by amending their constitutions to specify that marriage must be heterosexual. State representative Bill Graves, a bill sponsor in Oklahoma, wants to stipulate that same-sex unions are "repugnant to the public policy" of the state. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, President Bush indicated he would support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would limit marriage to a man and a woman. He suggested this option would be needed only if "activist judges" overruled existing federal and state Defense of Marriage laws.

Supporters say the constitutional amendments are necessary to ensure that legislation and court judgments in other states--such as the recent ruling in favor of gay marriage by the Massachusetts supreme judicial court--will not compel recognition of same-sex unions in their own states. Gay rights activists see the amendment campaign as vindictive and partisan. "This is a political attack motivated by fierce antigay opponents who want to slam us again and again," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national advocacy group Freedom to Marry. "They are not just looking to suppress gay marriage but to deny gay people any measure of legal protection and human dignity."

In all, 37 states and the federal government have Defense of Marriage acts that say marriage can be between only a man and a woman. Ohio may soon become the 38th state; its senate approved one of the most far-reaching gay marriage bans in the nation on Wednesday, making only minor changes in a house-passed version. Going further than the laws in most states, Ohio's bill also would prohibit state employees from getting benefits for domestic partners, gay or straight. Proposed constitutional amendments that would ban gay marriage have been introduced in Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Michigan; one is expected soon in Alabama. An Idaho Republican, Rep. Henry Kulczyk, plans to introduce a similar measure there, to the dismay of some Democrats. "We've got enough contention to deal with rather than going through a litmus test for the reactionary right," said Idaho senate minority leader Clint Stennett.

Massachusetts does not have a Defense of Marriage Act, but the high-court ruling there has sparked vociferous public debate, and an antigay marriage amendment has been proposed by its lawmakers as well. In Virginia the house of delegates overwhelmingly approved a resolution Friday urging Congress to support a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as heterosexual. The resolution now goes to the senate. "We don't want to be left in the lurch where the measure we passed overwhelmingly several years ago is stricken down by the high court of this country," said the resolution's sponsor, Robert McConnell, referring to Virginia's existing Defense of Marriage Act.

Georgia's proposed amendment--which could go on the November general election ballot--was presented on Wednesday in the state senate. Any change to traditional marriage "begins to tear at the foundations of our institutions," said senate Republican leader Bill Stephens. Gay rights advocates and some Democratic lawmakers denounced the measure as politically motivated. "The purpose of amendments is to create protections for the citizens of Georgia, not to write discrimination into the constitution," said Allen Thornell, executive director of the gay rights group Georgia Equality.

The American Friends Service Committee--a Quaker social justice group--this week joined the campaign against the proposed amendment in Michigan. In Kentucky about 30 gay rights supporters protested Wednesday at the state capitol, many carrying signs reading, "Anti-marriage amendments hurt my family." Two Kentucky legislators who oppose the amendment are sponsoring a counterproposal that would outlaw discrimination against gays. "There's no excuse why fairness cannot be passed," said Democratic representative Kathy Stein. "Other than the fact that, unfortunately, a number of my colleagues...are afraid to think about it."

Pending final resolution of the Massachusetts court ruling, no state allows full-fledged same-sex marriages. Vermont recognizes marriagelike civil unions, while California, Hawaii, and New Jersey grant various rights to same-sex couples registered as domestic partners. Legislators in Maryland and Colorado hope to get civil union legislation considered by their colleagues this session. If Ohio enacts its pending Defense of Marriage Act as expected, only 12 states, including Massachusetts, would be without one. The others are Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

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