Gay Marriage Controversy Continues: A Tale of Two States

by Joe Auciello


During the last two years, the struggle for gay rights, especially the initiatives for civil unions and same-sex marriage, has seen more setbacks than gains throughout the United States.

In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that gays had a right to marry, and the first ceremonies were held in 2004. Since then, seventeen states have adopted constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage — most often by popular vote — and ten of these states also ban civil unions and domestic partnerships. In addition, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in September vetoed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

Yet, there are still important signs of progress.

In the first weekend of October, gay couples in Connecticut, legally united for the first time in civil unions, celebrated their partial victory in city halls throughout the state. In Hartford, local officials flew a rainbow flag over the main entrance to their city hall and passed out carnations to the newly united couples. Connecticut now joins Vermont as the only two states recognizing civil unions.

Connecticut legislatures had passed a civil unions bill in April; a local university poll found that 56% of Connecticut voters approved such unions while opposing same-sex marriages. A key provision of the Connecticut civil-unions bill limits the definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman.  

As the Rev. Bonnie Bardot of New Britain, Connecticut, said, “I think we need to be really clear: civil unions are a big step, but it is not the same as marriage…We are still separate but equal, which is not the same. Separate has never been equal,” (Hartford Courant, Oct. 2, 2005).

One man in a newly united couple said, “This is a historic day. We’re beyond ecstatic,” but added, “It’s bittersweet because we’re being treated as second-class citizens…It’s not full marriage equality.” (Boston Globe, Oct. 2, 2005) Civil unions give same-sex couples equal protections and benefits on the local and state level but are not subject to federal laws that affect married couples.

At the same time, across the border in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is the law, Roman Catholic churches across the state launched “Protect Marriage Sunday,” a crusade to repeal gay marriage and disallow civil unions. This is a major organizing effort by the Christian right to regain lost political momentum.

Last September the Massachusetts House and Senate rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in favor of civil unions. The vote in the legislature was 157-39, fifty-two more votes in support of gay marriage than the previous year.

Following this setback in the legislature, conservative politicians in the Republican and Democratic parties, evangelical churches, and the Roman Catholic church, all began a petition campaign for an initiative to outlaw both gay marriage and civil unions. A minimum of 65,825 certified signatures are needed for the ballot initiative to go before the legislature, which will then vote to place the question on the referendum in the 2008 elections. Fifty votes in two legislative sessions are needed for a petition to achieve ballot status.

Every Catholic school student in Massachusetts has been given a petition to bring home, in effect turning schoolchildren into petition drive “volunteers.” In most Catholic churches, the priest spoke from his pulpit in favor of the petition, and parishioners were asked to sign it before leaving the church. Organizers claim to have gathered 25,000 signatures within the week culminating in “Protect Marriage Sunday.” Both supporters and opponents of the campaign expect the petition to achieve double the amount of required signatures. That outpouring of support would shield the petition from a legal challenge and would place pressure on wavering legislators to endorse the petition in the name of democracy.

Supporters of gay rights have also been active. Protestors have demonstrated in front of Catholic churches with signs that read, “Support Our Families, Too.”

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders have filed a lawsuit to expand gay marriage laws in the state. Republican Governor Romney, who opposes gay marriage and civil unions, was unable to veto the gay marriage bill. He did, however, unearth a little-known 1913 law that forbade out-of-state couples to wed in Massachusetts if their marriages were not recognized in their home states. The original intent of the 90-year-old law was to prevent interracial marriages for couples who resided in the South. Gay rights activists are now urging the Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled in favor of gay marriage in 2003, to expand the scope of their earlier decision. The case is expected to last several months. Also, a lawsuit has also been filed in Connecticut to force the state to grant full marriage rights to gay couples. That case is set to begin in January.

Meanwhile, a political battle of propaganda and politics is being fought. Former Boston mayor and Vatican ambassador Raymond Flynn, one of the petition’s chief sponsors, claims, “[The marriage petition] is not against anybody, it’s for children and it’s for the stability of marriage, which is really the foundation of our great nation,” (Boston Globe, Oct. 3, 2005)

But the stability of Massachusetts, much less the nation, is not put at risk when gays wed. Heterosexual couples lose nothing when gay couples proceed into marriage. Children raised within same-sex marriages are not adversely affected. Marriage, in fact, is not “under attack;” instead, its meaning is being expanded and redefined.

This is more than a matter of semantics. The redefinition of marriage has been ongoing throughout American history. It is undeniable that as America has evolved, marriage in America has evolved, as well. Married women, for instance, were not always allowed control over their finances or inheritance; divorce was not always legal; interracial marriage was banned throughout much of the 20th century. Far from being fixed and eternal, changes in society have caused changes in the institution of marriage. Such is the shift underway today. As gays gain more acceptance in society at large, the question of gay marriage will be posed ever more sharply.

Gays and lesbians who choose marriage do so for a number of reasons, emotional and practical, just as heterosexual couples do. Every American deserves that right. It is the right to make the most personal of choices, to choose one’s life partner freely without undue interference from any level of government. It is an essential right that must not be limited or repealed even by popular vote. It is a right based on the most fundamental premise of this country: that all Americans are created equal.