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US Same-Sex Marriage Debate Intensifies - 2004-03-06

The debate over same-sex marriage in the United States has intensified in recent days, as an increasing number of states, cities and even small towns began to deal with marriage demands from gay and lesbian couples. The new push for gay marriages comes even as public opinion polls indicate most Americans remain opposed to the idea.

The gay marriage debate seemed to spread like a wildfire this week, from Oregon on the West Coast to New York City in the East.

More than 100 same-sex couples lined up to get married in Portland, Oregon, after local officials began issuing marriage licenses, including one to Tina Emberg and her partner.

"I never really thought it was a big deal. But now that we have the opportunity to get married, we rushed down here, and are just so thrilled to be here. It is really a festive occasion," she said.

It was a different story in New York City, where dozens of same-sex couples seeking to be married were turned away at the city clerk's office.

New York's state attorney general said current law prohibits same-sex marriage. But that did not stop this woman from trying to wed her long-time partner.

"[I'm] saddened a little bit. But also really proud of all of us, because everything upstairs [in City Hall] is really calm, and it is like anybody waiting for a marriage license. So, we are hopeful that we will keep on trying, and that, at some point, the clerk will say, yes," she said.

The debate over same-sex marriage has intensified, since city officials in San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to more than 3,000 gay and lesbian couples three weeks ago.

But the images of same-sex couples being married in San Francisco have also prompted demonstrations in some parts of the country among those who oppose gay marriage.

This woman took part in a recent telephone call-in program on the cable television public affairs network, known as C-SPAN.

"And, yes, you may be good people, but you are sending the wrong message to kids. And that is what I object to. What you want to do with your life as an adult, fine. Leave the kids alone. Let them decide when they get older," she said.

Last month, President Bush threw his support behind a move to approve a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriages, something conservative groups had been pressing him to do for months.

Among those supporting such an amendment is Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, a Washington research organization that wants to bolster marriage between men and women.

"What concerns me is that we are witnessing the fragmentation of our common marriage culture, when we have mayors and public officials in what I would consider a form of grandstanding, basically announcing that they have the right to make up their own private definition of what marriage is and just impose it on their jurisdiction," she said.

The prospects for enacting a constitutional amendment are uncertain. Changing the U.S. Constitution requires two-thirds majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives and approval from three-quarters of the 50 states. In addition, some prominent members of Congress from both political parties have questioned whether a constitutional amendment on the issue is appropriate.

But Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist says he fears that local officials will continue authorizing gay marriages, unless Congress takes action.

Given the attention on gay marriage, the issue is certain to be part of this year's presidential campaign.

Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says issues like gay marriage and abortion tend to reveal the national divide on social issues.

"People on the coasts, the East Coast and the West Coast, have different views on values than do many of the people in the middle," he said. "And I think the Republicans will push this issue, and I think it is an advantage for them, as long as they don't push it so hard and so crudely that they look, and the president looks intolerant and mean-spirited."

Most political and legal analysts believe the question of gay marriage will eventually be decided in the nation's court system, both at the state and federal levels.