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Marriage proposals: while the attitudes of many Americans about gays are changing, recent court rulings, weddings, and proposals to amend the Constitution have started a difficult national debate on gay marriage.

>From Hollywood to Madison Avenue, from Washington to Wall Street, and in communities across America, attitudes toward homosexuality have changed dramatically in recent years.

There are now gay characters on many TV shows, including sitcoms like Will & Grace and It's All Relative. And during the commercial breaks, companies like Target, Wrigley, and American Express are increasingly using gay celebrities and athletes in their ad campaigns.

In Washington, First Lady Laura Bush was asked recently if she and the President had gay friends. "Sure, of course," she said. "Everyone does." Her husband has appointed some openly gay officials in the White House. And across town, the House of Representatives now has three openly gay members: Barney Frank (D-Mass.); Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.); and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.).

In the business world, nearly 200 of the Fortune 500 (the 500 largest U.S. companies)--including Wal-Mart, Coca Cola, GM, and Ford---offer domestic-partner benefits, which give gay and unmarried heterosexual couples the same benefits as married couples.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, a nonpartisan research organization, says that Americans are in the midst of a striking change in their attitudes toward homosexuality and are far more tolerant than they were 15 years ago.

At the same time, however, contentious issues remain, with none likely to be more difficult than the headline topic of the moment, gay marriage.

HOW THE MARRIAGE DEBATE BEGAN

Gay marriage became a big issue last fall when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay people have the right to marry under that state's Constitution. In February, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom authorized same-sex marriages there, and communities in New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, and Oregon, among others, soon followed suit--though court challenges have halted many of them for now.

President Bush's response was to announce his support for an amendment to the Constitution that would outlaw gay marriage. (Senator John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, has said that he opposes gay marriage, but would not amend the Constitution to ban it.)

So now, in the midst of a presidential campaign in which national security and the economy were expected to be the key issues, the nation also finds itself debating basic questions about the nature of marriage, the values that unite Americans, and how much change society can or should accept.

'THE RIGHT TO BE BORING'

The debate over gay marriage comes at a time when gays have been emphasizing how similar their concerns are to those of other Americans. Gay couples say they stress over paying taxes, worry about health insurance, fall in love, and raise children, just like their straight neighbors. "I've been fighting all my life for the right to be boring," says Representative Frank.

But opponents say gay marriage would harm an institution rooted in history. "It is society's basic institution for raising children," says Lisa Schiffren, a Republican speech writer. "It expresses the unique relationship between men and women, an ideal based on love and care that is harnessed to the future: the next generation."

Proponents of gay marriage see it as a civil right that should be available to all adults, regardless of their sexual orientation. Jonathan Rauch, a writer in residence at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., argues that same-sex marriage "says that whether you're gay or straight--or rich or poor, or religious or secular, or what have you--marriage is the ultimate commitment for all: the destination to which loving relationships naturally aspire."

Many Americans reside in the ambivalent middle on this and related issues. Polls show that only a minority of Americans support gay marriage. Yet a majority support civil unions, which would give same-sex partners many of the benefits enjoyed by married couples. And only a slim majority support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

That's one reason the prospects for an amendment are far from clear. The Founding Fathers intentionally made it difficult to amend the Constitution. Both houses of Congress must pass a proposed amendment by a two-thirds vote, and then three quarters of the 50 state legislatures must ratify it.

Since World War II, Congress has voted in favor of seven amendments, and of those, the states ratified five. The most recent amendment--the 27th, dealing with congressional pay--has its own unusual history: It was approved by Congress in 1789, but only took effect in 1992, after three quarters of the states had ratified it. The 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, took effect in 1971.

AMENDMENTS THAT DIDN'T MAKE IT

The vast majority of proposed amendments never make it out of Congress. Among those that failed to pass Congress was one that would have renamed the U.S. the United States of Earth (1893), and another that would have forbidden drunkenness (1938). Of 10,000 amendments proposed in Congress, only 33 have won the required majorities. But of those, 27 have been ratified by the states and added to the Constitution.

Political strategists say neither party really knows where most Americans stand on many gay-related issues. And with no clear consensus so far, the gay-marriage debate is likely to continue to attract a large measure of attention, while putting public officials on the spot.

Says Charles Francis, a Bush family friend and co-chairman of the Republican Unity Coalition, a gay-straight political alliance: "It's front and center, and it's a terribly difficult issue for everybody on both sides."
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Title Annotation:National
Author:Vilbig, Peter
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 5, 2004
Words:897
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