Gay marriage vaults to forefront of politically charged issues

With the bang of a courtroom gavel, gay marriage has become the new hot-button issue in American politics, taking its place alongside abortion, gun control and flag-burning as a topic that inflames passions and divides the nation.

Monday’s ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in support of same-sex marriage forced the topic to center stage in next year’s presidential election, as well as congressional and legislative races and other court cases across the country.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages and gave states the right to refuse to recognize gay marriages licensed in other states. The law is almost certain to face new legal challenges as a result of the Massachusetts case.

To gay-rights supporters, the Massachusetts decision affirmed bedrock American values of liberty and equal treatment under the law. To critics, it was an assault on traditional families, an affront to the concept of majority rule and an abomination in the eyes of God.

No issue has so energized Christian conservatives since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Some veterans of the anti-abortion movement have turned their energy to the new cause of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages and define marriage as “the union of a man and a woman.”

Leaders behind the proposed amendment say they’re optimistic that they can get a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, as well as ratification by at least 38 states.

“Traditional marriage is one of the last obstacles to the complete normalization of homosexuality in America,” said Roberta Combs, the president of the Christian Coalition. “Congress and the state legislatures need to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities and stop these runaway liberal judges.”

Gay-rights groups are equally fired up.

Mary Bonauto, an attorney in the Massachusetts case, called the ruling “a momentous legal and cultural milestone” on the path to full equality for gays and lesbians.

For now, though, gay-rights groups would rather make their arguments in a court of law than in the court of public opinion.

“This is a new concept to most Americans,” said Winnie Stachelberg, the political director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group. “It’s going to take a long time for the American public to become comfortable with this.”

Recent polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center found that most Americans oppose gay marriage, and that that opposition is growing. In the Gallup poll, 61 percent expressed opposition, up from 55 percent in the summer. Pew put the opposition at 59 percent, up from 51 percent.

That’s bad news for Democrats, who tend to be far more supportive of gay rights. While President Bush denounced the Massachusetts ruling, his Democratic rivals offered varying degrees of praise.

The difference of opinion reflects realities within the two parties. Evangelical Christians and social conservatives are a core element of Bush’s Republican base. Gays and gay-rights advocates are a key part of the Democratic Party. Nearly all Democratic presidential candidates have links to “LGBT” – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – issues on their campaign Web sites.

Some conservative Republicans, including Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian, and former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, are sympathetic to the idea of gay marriage.

“People should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. It’s really no one else’s business,” Cheney said at a vice presidential candidates’ debate during the 2000 campaign. “I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that’s appropriate. I don’t think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean – the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination – boasts that he signed his state’s law giving gay couples the option of civil unions.