Saying 'I do' in the United States gives a man and a woman certain rights, responsibilities and recognition as a married couple. On November 7th, voters in 8 states will decide whether same-sex couples should be prohibited by law from taking those vows and gaining those rights, responsibilities and recognition.
Gay couples may get married in Massachusetts, but their union is not recognized anywhere else. Last month [October 25], the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the state has to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples. Five other states and the District of Columbia give gay couples legal rights. In so-called civil unions and domestic partnerships, unmarried couples may make medical decisions for a partner and share health insurance benefits. Twenty-six states have laws banning same-sex marriage.
In the upcoming election, Colorado finds itself torn between two seemingly contradictory pro and anti-gay rights measures. Referendum I asks voters to decide whether same-sex couples should get many of the rights and responsibilities of married couples. Sean Duffy, who heads the pro-domestic partnership effort, says it's about equal rights, citing the case of one gay man whose partner collapsed. "He was not permitted to ride in the ambulance," he explains. "[He] ran home to get some paperwork. By the time he got to the hospital, he was told his partner died in the ambulance. And he says that for the rest of his life, he'll wonder if his partner woke up and wondered where he was."
Opponents say domestic partnerships are simply the first step to gay marriage. Colorado's evangelical community is backing the other measure -- Amendment 43 -- that would define marriage in the state constitution as the union of one man and one woman. Jim Pfaff of the conservative group Focus on the Family says that's the best way to protect and nurture children. "What we can look back to is not only a millennia of experience but decades of research which show clearly that a husband and wife in the home is the best environment that they could be at." He suggests talking to any single mother. "She'd tell you that she wished she had a husband in the home."
Before a public forum on gay marriage at Aurora, Colorado's Mountain View Community Church, Reverend Craig Peterson attempts to lay a foundation of civility. Family quickly becomes the debate's focus with both sides using words as weapons.
Will Perkins, a long time anti-gay activist, announces "I would not want any child to grow up in an aberrant arrangement," referring to gay and lesbian couples who have children. He accuses the same sex parents in the crowd of being bad influences on their children. "To be role models is one of the main functions of parents," he tells them, "and you're role modeling something that is not [the norm]. If that were the norm, we wouldn't be here to talk about this thing!"
Domestic partnership supporters say the reality is that gay people are having or adopting children. Sean Duffy says Referendum I would treat same-sex couples just like heterosexual ones, and importantly, would ensure that their children get the same protections. "Gay people have special rights right now," he points out, "because one of them who is not the parent can walk out the door. No child support, no nothing. Pass Referendum I and within a domestic partnership, we now have a little thing called child support. I think that's a good thing."
John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University, observes that both sides "are at least in some measure genuine [in] their concern about children." But he notes strategic overtones in the debate. "I think that it's perfectly clear that expressing concern about the children has political value. It's powerful symbolically. You care about the kids. This is what it's all about." But that leaves Colorado voters in the middle of this family feud.
Straayer says Americans' views about same-sex relationships have moderated in recent years but polls indicate they're not quite ready to embrace gay marriage. Since 1998, after a Hawaii court struck down that state's same-sex-marriage ban, voters have overwhelmingly approved every proposal to ban gay marriage. Domestic partnership legislation has fared better at the ballot box. But Straayer says, Colorado's competing ballot offerings mean voters don't have to choose sides. "Two measures can be compatible [in] that you can preserve the notion in the religious sense that marriage is between a man and a woman. Period. At the same time, you can enact laws that extend to your fellow citizens who have a different sexual orientation legal rights."
No matter what happens on November 7th, the national debate over gay marriage is certain to continue.