Saturday, March 25, 2006

Same-sex marriage battles escalate

Same-sex marriage battles escalate
By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Gay rights advocates are pushing to legalize same-sex marriage with an unprecedented wave of lawsuits in state courts, while those seeking to ban such unions are gaining ground in state legislatures.

The contrasting strategies reflect how judges have begun to show a willingness to expand the rights of same-sex couples at a time when many state lawmakers — and most Americans — are cool to the idea.

Several key developments are likely soon. The top state courts in Washington state and New Jersey have heard arguments brought by gay men and lesbians. Either court could open the door to a second state joining Massachusetts in allowing same-sex marriages. (Related story: Lawsuits target bans)

Other lawsuits backed by the ACLU, Lambda Legal and other gay rights groups are wending their way through courts in California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland and New York. The groups want courts to declare that same-sex couples have a right to marry based on state constitutional protections for equality and due process of law. The groups also hope to win legal precedents that could influence the U.S. Supreme Court to endorse a constitutional right to same-sex unions nationwide.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for Marriage and other groups against same-sex marriage hope to win legislative ballot initiatives this year in Alabama, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. The measures would amend state constitutions to ban same-sex marriages.

Nineteen states have such bans. Most have been adopted since November 2003, when Massachusetts' highest state court said same-sex couples have a right to marry under state law. Massachusetts then became the first state to give marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

The legislative moves against gay marriages aren't limited to the states. In June, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to begin debating a measure intended to lead to a U.S. constitutional amendment banning such marriages. The proposals in legislatures and in Congress partly reflect public-opinion polls, which for five years have indicated that about 60% of Americans oppose legalizing same-sex marriage.

The ACLU and others supporting same-sex marriages hope to turn public opinion by casting the ability to marry one's chosen partner as a basic right. They also are trying to tie their campaign with the efforts against bans on interracial marriage four decades ago.

A few judges, including Manhattan Judge Doris Ling-Cohan, have made such a link in backing same-sex marriages. Her ruling was reversed in December, however, by an appeals court that said the state has "a strong interest in fostering heterosexual marriage."

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