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But the President remembers the lessons of 1992, when moderate voters punished his father for a G.O.P. convention loaded with extremist declamations on the culture wars. Bush the son is careful to avoid coarse language about gays and lesbians. As Air Force One flew to South Carolina last week, the President made clear his opposition to gay marriage but added, "I'm not against anybody," according to Jim DeMint, a Republican Congressman who was aboard. "If some people want to have a contract, that's O.K., but marriage is the foundation of society."
Though it was an offhand comment, the idea that Bush might favor some kind of "contract" for gay couples--presumably a type of state recognition--is astonishing when you look back at the brief history of the gay-marriage debate. As recently as 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court issued the first appellate-court ruling in favor of gay marriage (a ruling that never took effect because Hawaiians voted to amend their constitution), even domestic partnerships were still considered radical. Only a few liberal municipalities offered them--Berkeley and West Hollywood in California, for example--and they didn't cover much. You could get a certificate suitable for framing and the assurance that a hospital within city limits would let you visit a sick partner. That was about it. FORTUNE 500 companies were only beginning to allow partners of gay and lesbian employees to buy into health insurance plans. Most big cities didn't offer their employees such arrangements; in 1993 plans to extend health benefits to same-sex partners of city employees in Atlanta and Seattle caused great public consternation.
Today municipalities routinely invite partners of gay employees to join health plans. Kansas City, Kans., became the latest to do so just last week. The website of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay political group, now lists 7,414 U.S. employers that offer domestic-partner benefits. And New Jersey, Hawaii, California and Vermont have established statewide registries for gay couples. Until last week, Vermont's law was the most famous (thanks to former Governor Howard Dean) as well as the most sweeping. That state's civil unions go well beyond the limited package of benefits usually associated with domestic partnerships and offer everything except the word marriage--inheritance rights, joint state-tax filings, joint adoptions, the whole show. But not the word marriage.
Which is where things stood until last week. The Massachusetts decision laid out the case for why, in the majority's opinion, everything but marriage is not enough. The state senate had asked the court if it could establish civil unions to meet the constitutional requirement of equality for gay couples set forth in an earlier ruling. "The answer," the court replied, "is 'No.'" Why not? "Because the proposed law [establishing civil unions] by its express terms forbids same-sex couples entry into civil marriage [and therefore] continues to relegate same-sex couples to a different status ... The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal."