SOCIAL ISSUES : Same-Sex Marriage Moves to Forefront of Cultural Debate : Hawaii case may require states to recognize such unions. Conservatives are rallying against the possibility.


In all but a few details, the Minardi-Edelman union was the sort of occasion that has inspired joyful tears since society began the marriage ritual. The couple fed each other wedding cake, kissed and rubbed their frosting-smeared noses. Family and friends cheered.

In this case, though, the deeply personal rite had a volatile political subtext, as symbolized by a small but critical departure from convention: the plastic figurines in the cake’s heart-shaped center were both grooms.

Widely dismissed as a fringe issue just a few years ago, homosexual marriage has abruptly emerged as an emotional flash point in the debate about America’s cultural mores.


President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) have stated their positions--both “against"--and seem eager to let the subject drop.

But as it happens, though, both national political conventions are in August, the same month a Hawaiian court is scheduled to deliberate a landmark case that many predict will give homosexuals the same right as heterosexuals to legally get married. Such a decision looms as crucial because of the U.S. Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause, requiring all states to honor every other state’s procedures. Thus, authorities in Wichita, Kan., would be bound to accept the legality of a gay or lesbian couple wed in Waikiki.

So as the fall campaign evolves, candidates may have a hard time dodging the issue. And the “family values” debate may never be the same.

Marc Minardi and Dennis Edelman became legal “domestic partners” in San Francisco on March 25 in a mass ceremony that included about 160 other gay and lesbian couples.

Organizers said they hoped the ceremony was a first step toward the goal of full-fledged gay marriage. In presiding over the event, Mayor Willie Brown boasted that his notoriously progressive city had reached the millennium ahead of schedule.

Already, though, social conservatives were fighting to assure that a future in which homosexual marriage is sanctioned never comes, and Hawaii has become their rallying point.

In 1993, that state’s Supreme Court ruled in Baehr vs. Lewin that unless the government could show a “compelling interest” to block same-sex marriage, denying that civil procedure to gay and lesbian couples would constitute discrimination: i.e., if Joe can marry Jane, why can’t Jennifer?

On Aug. 1, an assistant state attorney general will try to persuade a Hawaiian state circuit court judge that the state does indeed have an interest in limiting marriage to man and woman--at least in part because society has an interest in encouraging procreation and stable child-rearing.

But “compelling interest” is a demanding legal standard, and most legal scholars believe the state is going to lose.

Even if the gay rights side wins in Hawaii, experts say, expected legal appeals will almost certainly assure that no homosexual couples are married before late 1997 at the soonest. But even that is far too soon for social conservatives, who have are fighting the change on several fronts.

“We see heterosexual marriage and the traditional nuclear family as the foundational institution in society . . . “ says Larry Burtoft, who has written extensively on homosexuality for the Colorado Springs-based group, Focus on the Family. “Anything that is a loosening or redefining of marriage and family, we feel needs to be responded to and resisted.”

The first form of resistance has been to establish legal roadblocks. South Dakota, Utah and Hawaii have passed laws making heterosexual marriage the sole legal standard in their states. At least 15 states, including California, have similar legislation pending--with other measures being drafted for introduction in the U.S. Congress.

But it is a matter of legal debate whether such measures would thwart a decision by the Hawaiian court granting homosexuals the right to marry. So social conservatives have staked out other fronts.

In January, for instance, a coalition of far-flung groups with like-minded purposes--the Alliance for Traditional Marriage, Citizens for Community Values--got together in Memphis. Their nine-hour meeting spawned the National Campaign to Protect Marriage.

Bill Horn, an activist affiliated with a Lancaster anti-gay rights group called “The Report,” directed the coalition’s first major effort. On the eve of this year’s Iowa caucuses, Horn persuaded most of the Republican presidential candidates, including Dole, to endorse a “Marriage Protection Resolution” defining legal marriage as: “one man and one woman as husband and wife.” About 2,000 people including a large media contingent attended the group’s rally in Des Moines.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll in March showed 68% of respondents rejecting same-sex marriage. Even in Hawaii, 71% of people polled by the Honolulu Advertiser last month said they opposed it.

But David Smith, an official with the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, thinks the opposition will lose ground as the gay marriage debate churns. People are bound to notice, Smith says, “that gay people do have strong families . . . that we live lives very similar to theirs, lives that are the antithesis of how they portray us: wild, single-minded, promiscuous.”

Activists who support expanding gay rights say that sexual orientation is an inherent human quality and thus no more a moral issue than the color of one’s eyes.

Those who oppose the idea of rights based on a person’s sexuality tend to argue that homosexuality is biblically proscribed behavior, which, like all sin, one can choose or refuse.

The scientific jury is still out on possible biological origins of homosexuality, and the marriage issue is only widening the religious schism.

When the 1,750-member Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution endorsing legal homosexual marriages, Rabbi Jerome Davidson said: “If two people love each other and create a lasting, binding relationship, they deserve to have their religion’s blessing.”

On the other hand, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, recently said that legalizing same-sex marriage would be “an unmitigated moral, social and societal disaster.”

Which is why the political debate tends to focus on the pragmatic. Practically speaking, legalization of same-sex marriage would have an array of repercussions. Tax rates, insurance payments, property rights, child custody disputes and social security benefits are just a few matters that would be affected.

Many social conservatives, however, say they are motivated by deeper concerns.

At the Des Moines rally, for instance, the audience cheered approval as an organizer read Dole’s letter of support. “ . . . It is now no longer a matter of dispute,” the GOP candidate wrote, “that many of the social ills that plague our society--violent crime, drug abuse, welfare dependency--are directly linked with the collapse of the two-parent family.”

And Dole made clear that the sort of two-parent family America needs to fix its problems is strictly the “husband and wife” kind.

But there is a contrary, yet decidedly conservative argument for expanding that view, argues Andrew Sullivan, the editor of the New Republic.

“Even in our society as it is, many gay and lesbian relationships are virtual textbooks of monogamous commitment,” Sullivan writes in his book, “Virtually Normal--An Argument About Homosexuality.” Expanding legal marriage to include same-sex couples, he says, would bring that group more securely into the cultural fold, healing old wounds and strengthening the social fabric.

Few social conservatives begrudge gay couples “their own ceremony of some kind--that’s their own business,” says Robert Knight, of the Family Research Council in Washington. “But when you bring the law into it, you force it on everyone . . . that has huge consequences.”

“I find it amazing,” Knight says, “that some radical judges in Hawaii may get to dictate the moral code for the entire nation, against the will of the vast majority.”