Cover Story

Unholy Matrimony

Gay activists have lost numerous recent political battles. Their new strategy is to persuade courts to overrule voters on gay marriage. In Vermont they may very well succeed. The result: One state's supreme court could radically redefine marriage for the entire nation.

Issue: "Unholy matrimony," Feb. 13, 1999

The hand-lettered sign in Gunther Hanelt's jewelry shop window reads, "commitment rings." As Valentine's Day nears, his sales are up-"though I sell more in the summer," he says, when this town at the far end of Cape Cod fills with tourists, mostly homosexual.

Will that sign-and similar signs in other jewelry shops here in Provincetown-come down if same-sex marriage is declared legal?

"Hmmm. I hadn't thought about it," he says. "Would they be wedding rings then?" he asks two friends.

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"I guess so," says one, laughing. "Bet you're glad you didn't buy the neon one."

"Oh, yes, those are expensive," says Mr. Hanelt, a German native who came to this homosexual enclave in 1972. "But why should I change the sign? Even if it is marriage, won't it still be a commitment?"

"Would you ever get married?" his other friend asks. Gunther frowns, running a hand through his thinning hair, and goes back to the display cases he's dusting.

His first friend, who wears a thin, tight leather jacket, grimaces. "What about divorce? If we have gay marriage, will we have gay divorces?"

And this starts an argument. "Gay marriage," says one of the men, is the wrong term to use because it implies a different kind of marital status. "We should say 'legal marriage for gay couples.'"

"That won't work," argues another, because "the lesbians won't like it. You'll have to say the whole thing: legal marriage for gay, lesbian, bi-, and transgendered people. I'm tired already."

"You know," the other says, "this is really their thing. We don't care a thing about it. It's the lesbians. They're so political."

The other disagrees. "I care about it. You should, too. And anyway, it's coming. Before you know it. It's something that's really important."

He's absolutely right. Same-sex marriage could be a reality by this summer. Vermont has pulled ahead of Hawaii and Alaska in the race to the altar; last month, the Vermont Supreme Court listened to arguments in Baker vs. Vermont, a case brought by two lesbian couples and a homosexual couple.

The court probably will rule in April-June at the latest-and observers such as the University of Vermont's Peter Teachout expect the vote to be 3-2 in favor of gay marriage.

"What's disappointing is that this is coming about through the courts, even though there were some victories at the polls last fall," says Matt Daniels of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which filed an amicus brief in the Vermont case.

In both Hawaii and Alaska, voters approved state defense of marriage amendments by margins of 2-to-1 on Nov. 4. Vermonters won't have the opportunity to vote on the same sort of amendment to their constitution until 2002, which means nearly four years of legally binding same-sex marriages before residents have a say in the matter.

And conservatives shouldn't pin their hopes on the federal Defense of Marriage (DOMA) law, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996. DOMA is intended to prevent federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages, and to allow individual states to refuse to recognize homosexual marriages performed in other states. Homosexual activist groups are already claiming that the law is fatally flawed; they argue that it conflicts with the "Full Faith and Credit Clause" of the U.S. Constitution, which says that contracts and judicial proceedings validated by one state should be honored by other states.

Many legal scholars, however, believe the law is sound. "In the second sentence of the Full Faith and Credit Clause the Constitution reads: 'And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof,'" points out Amherst College's Hadley Arkes. If Congress can't act under this clause, he asks, who can?

A number of gay advocacy groups, including the Partners Task Force for Gay and Lesbian Couples and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, say the Supreme Court should take charge. They will challenge the constitutionality of DOMA as soon as the Baker decision comes down and, most likely, homosexuals begin to "marry."

"I think what this means is that Christians had better get ready," says Mr. Daniels. "This promises to be the Roe vs. Wade of the homosexual movement; if it happens, the floodgates will open and the landscape will change dramatically."

The Partners Task Force, a homosexual lobbying group based in Seattle, is quite clear about what those changes could entail.

"Couples married by a state government are automatically granted a broad range of rights at the federal level," the group argues in its "Quick Facts on Legal Marriage for Same Sex Couples" publication. Those federal and state rights include child custody, property rights, insurance breaks, joint adoption and foster care, sick leave, wrongful death benefits, Social Security survivor benefits, divorce protections, and automatic inheritance.

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