Despite angry Republican denunciations of the Massachusetts courtís decision, federal intervention to stop gay marriages is not likely. Republicans are threatening to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, but any enacting any law requiring ratification by 38 states is virtually impossible. As for the Democrats, just look at the six major presidential candidates: They all support civil unions but oppose gay marriage; they know they donít want to be talking about this issue next Fall. A Pew Research Poll in October found that while Republicans oppose gay marriage five to one, Democrats are split 46% for and 48% against.
The states donít have the luxury of inaction, but theyíre dealing with the issue at their own speeds. Vermont grappled with it in 2000. The state Supreme Court had ruled the previous year on behalf of three same-sex couples that the legislature had to pass a law giving them at least the same legal rights as married couples. But the justices made it clear in their decision that civil unions, which provide all the civil rights of marriage without the actual marriage, would be just fine. Then-Governor Howard Dean jumped on that life raft, backing a civil unions bill. The legislature passed it after contentious debate, Dean signed it without cameras in the room and Vermont made history. Some legislators in both parties lost their jobs that fall, but Dean kept his, and polls showed a slight majority of the state had accepted the unions law.
Massachusetts doesnít have that luxury because its justices did not provide an easy way out. The 4-3 decision said that under the state constitutionís guarantees of equality, the state may not exclude ďqualified same-sex couples from access to civil marriage.Ē Then, just to make sure the court wasnít the only controversial government institution in town, the justices delayed implementing their ruling for 180 days to allow the legislature to craft a law to implement the decision. Republican Governor Mitt Romney has said he will push for an amendment to the state constitution banning marriage rights for homosexuals. But heíll have to wait amending the constitution requires votes on any measure in two straight legislative sessions and then a statewide referendum, meaning nothing will happen on that front for three years. (Apparently John Adams didnít want hasty amendments when he wrote the stateís constitution 223 years ago). Some Democrats had been backing a civil unions bill before the decision came down, but now that bill wonít satisfy the courts, and they donít want to push for full marriage rights. Many legislators are just throwing up their hands. If they do nothing, the courtís decision will allow marriages and lawmakers wonít take the blame they hope.
The Louisiana legislature is not even contemplating gay marriage. Reform-minded lawmakers are still having no luck outlawing discrimination against gays. Protecting homosexuals from abuse and losing their jobs needs to come first. But the issue has come up in New Orleans. Ten years ago, the city council established a registry for homosexual domestic partners. By registering, couples could receive benefits from any employers offering them. Across the country, more than 50 cities and counties offer such registries. In 1997, New Orleans also began offering benefits to domestic partners of municipal employees. Now six city residents five members of the Vieux Carrť Assembly of God Church in the French Quarter and their pastor, the Rev. Gregory Pembo are suing the city to abolish the registry and benefits, angry that their tax dollars are providing benefits to homosexual partners. A decision in the case is expected in the next six months.
Polls show younger Americans are far more supportive of gay marriage than their elders. In all likelihood, this issue will be settled in patchwork fashion in individual states and cities in years to come. Thatís not new. In 1948 California was the first state to forbid a prohibition on interracial marriage, but the U.S. Supreme Court did not conclusively strike down such barriers until 1967. Whether itís fair or not, when it comes to divisive social issues, Americans sometimes need a little time to see things arenít so black and white.