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The Arizona legislature began debating a hot-button social issue Thursday as a senate committee narrowly approved a measure urging that the U.S. Constitution be amended to prohibit gay marriages. The family services committee voted 4-3 for a memorial--a "postcard" in legislative slang--calling on Congress to pass the proposed Family Marriage Amendment and submit it to the states for ratification. The committee's four Republicans voted for the GOP-sponsored memorial. All three Democrats voted against it. The memorial is not binding but would put the chamber on record that it supports the proposed change in the U.S. Constitution. The amendment would state that marriage consists of a union of a man and a woman. It also would bar the federal government and states from giving benefits and rights associated with marriage to unmarried couples. The committee amended the original memorial to say that states and municipalities should not be prohibited from granting hospital visitation rights to unmarried couples. The committee's party-line vote sent the Republican-sponsored memorial to the full senate after a rules committee review. A similar proposal is pending in the house. Supporters told the committee the measure is needed to head off legal assaults on traditional marriage, while critics called it unnecessary and hateful. Glen Lavy, a lawyer with the Scottsdale-based Alliance Defense Fund, said the amendment is needed because some courts have shown no respect for states' policy decisions and long-standing traditions against same-sex marriages. Without the amendment, one state's decision to allow same-sex marriage could force others to follow because of constitutional requirements that states respect one anothers' laws, Lavy said. Opponents likened the campaign against gay marriage to racial hatred seen during the civil rights movement. "The same basic hatred is there if we let that amendment go into place," said Fletch Wideman, a former chaplain who is president of a Phoenix affiliate of an advocacy and support group for parents of gays. Several clergy members spoke against the bill, calling it a government intrusion on religious affairs and one that worsens an already confusing lowering of the wall between church and state. Meanwhile, a proposed amendment to Arizona's own constitution to ban gay marriages is stalled. The family service committee chairman, Republican senator Mark Anderson, said he does not plan to give that resolution a hearing. Because the gay marriage issue is likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court and Arizona already has a state law against gay marriage, "I just think it is little premature," Anderson said.