Rhode Island on Saturday adopted a law legalizing same-sex civil unions. The week before, New York became the sixth American state to allow the marriage of two men or two women. Twenty-nine states have passed constitutional amendments banning homosexuals from marrying. Proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage are struggling to define the very meaning of marriage.
Four-year-old Ian was adopted at birth by Dan Gallagher and Peter Shearer, homosexuals who have lived together in what they describe as a loving relationship for 14 years. Gallagher explains his understanding of marriage. "For me, it’s the outward expression of a commitment between two people; that the couple then has a vested interest in expressing their feeling toward each other, and showing that to others," he said.
Gays and lesbians celebrated passage of New York’s gay marriage law with an impromptu rendition of a 1964 pop song, Chapel of Love.
Ali Annunziato plans to marry her female partner next year. "I am going to enjoy my civil liberty as a woman to get married to a woman because I can and because I am in love and I should be able to do that," she said.
Many religious institutions, however, oppose gay marriage. New York’s Roman Catholic bishops issued a statement saying society must regain a true understanding of the meaning and the place of marriage. Monsignor Kieran Harrington, vicar of communications for the Brooklyn Diocese, says the state should not be the arbiter of who loves whom and what affection is.
"The concern of the state should be procreation, the bringing in of children into the world and to ensure that those children are raised in stable families. That’s the role of the state, because that’s the benefit to the state. That’s why the state confers benefits to married couples," he said.
Dan Gallagher and Peter Shearer say they try to provide Ian with a loving and stable home. Both say homosexual couples deserve such rights as health benefits, visitation and inheritance rights. But Shearer does not believe children are the primary criterion for marriage, noting that even some heterosexual couples cannot have any. "Me wearing a wedding ring to work and people knowing that I’m gay, it changes their understanding of what gay couples are from what may be an unfair bias to something that’s more reality based. I think it can actually lead to greater tolerance, so it actually even promotes a more civil society," he said.
New York’s Catholic bishops said in their statement that the church will always treat its homosexual brothers and sisters with respect, dignity and love. But Monsignor Harrington says gay marriage represents a further erosion of the institution of marriage that is already troubled by widespread divorce, cohabitation, children born out of wedlock and, indeed, sexual scandals within the church itself. He says failure of the state to maintain the ideal standard of marriage is a mistake.
"I think we can hold the ideal as, ‘this is what we should be holding up as the ideal, this is what the state should be supporting, and then there can be other circumstances that can be less than ideal, and the state can sometimes recognize that there are less than ideal states [circumstances]," he said.
President Barack Obama spoke recently at a White House reception for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. "You're fighting for the idea that everyone ought to be treated equally and everybody deserves to be able to live and love as they see fit," he said.
What the president did not say is that he supports same sex civil unions, but not gay marriage. Political observers say he could risk alienating many voters by favoring gay marriage.
People on both sides of the issue agree that Ian deserves a loving home. The difficulty is reconciling the definition of marriage. The religious view of many is that marriage has throughout history been a place where the miracle of life takes place. Proponents of gay marriage say recognition of homosexual love represents social progress.