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Thursday, Jul 15, 2004, 1:23 pm

The Gay Marriage Debate ??? No Winners Yet

By Jim Rinnert
The campaign against gay marriage had it's day (three days, actually) in the Senate before being knocked off the agenda yesterday when gay marriage proponents were unable to secure the 60 votes needed to clear a procedural hurdle and move to a vote on the proposed constitutional amendment.

No matter. The show of kicking the subject around on the Senate floor WAS the point for most gay-marriage opponents. They had the chance to stand up for their conservative brand of "family values" and make sure their constituencies back home knew it.

As I predicted in a December "Viewpoint" , the reaction to recent court decisions and the push for gay marriage brought out every Bible-thumping preacher and politician (and others) to declare their belief that "marriage" is between a man and a woman. The Senate debate gave Republican (and other) blowhards the opportunity to blow hardy on the subject. (Like Pennsylvania Senator/homophobe Rick Santorum: "I would argue the future of our country hangs in the balance. Isn't that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?") Responding to the Senate's [in]action, George Bush noted for his conservative base that he was ''deeply disappointed that the effort to pass a constitutional amendment affirming the sanctity of marriage as being between a man and woman was temporarily blocked."

Mission accomplished. In mollifying their base on the gay marriage issue, the administration also managed to put a major wedge issue in the public consciousness just two weeks before the Democratic national convention. The Kerry-Edwards position (against gay marriage; but it should be up to the states) may be the "correct" one, but it does nothing to assuage the fears of either side in the debate. In an interview that appeared today in the Financial Times, Bill Clinton advises the Kerry-Edwards campaign against engaging in "cultural wars" debate, pointing out that Bush will use those issues (gay marriage, abortion, gun control), combined with his standing as commander-in-chief at a time of threat, to split the electorate and hold onto his job.

Democrats' reaction in the Senate debate was lame and equivicating. "Little support was expressed in the Senate for gay marriage," noted Susan Milligan in the Boston Globe today. "Only Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, delivered an impassioned speech defending the right of same-sex couples to enjoy the same legal protections as heterosexual couples."

''The decision to bring up this divisive, discriminatory, and completely unnecessary amendment . . . shows the Senate at its worst," Kennedy added on the floor yesterday. Earlier, Kennedy invoked the recent anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and accused Bush administration and the Republican congressional leadership of seeking ''to write bigotry back into the Constitution, by denying gays and lesbians the right to marry."

Milligan reported that most Democrats who spoke during the debate joined Republicans in expressing their personal opposition to gay marriage, while asserting the issue should be decided by the states and not by amending the Constitution. Their arguments reflected a broader, bipartisan discomfort with discussing human sexuality, advocates said, as well as uncertainty over how the issue will play with constituents back home.

''Marriage is a sacred union between men and women. That is what the vast majority of Americans believe, virtually what all South Dakotans believe. It's what I believe," said Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota. Daschle, who voted against the procedural motion that would have kept the amendment alive, is facing a tough challenge from former US representative John Thune, a Republican whose recent ads have mentioned the gay marriage amendment.

The anti-gay marriage amendment issue isn't going away. The House still has a resolution in committee. Expect the rhetoric of that debate to be even louder and more contumelious than that in the more restrained chamber of the Senate.

And the fight FOR gay marriage isn't going away either. After all the rhetoric has been spewed, and after the election, perhaps cooler heads will prevail and the subject will be addressed as an equal-rights issue. Perhaps then we can make real progress towards a civil contract recognized by state and federal governments that gives same-sex unions the same rights, advantages and protections that marriage gives to heterosexual couples. We can give up the semantic battle???the appropriation of the term "marriage"???in exchange for real, substantial equal rights. .

P.S. By the way, religious fundamentalists of all stripes line up against gay marriage. Take a look at IslamOnline.net 's fatwah list, whimsically labelled "The Fatwah Bank".

Jim Rinnert is the art director at In These Times.

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