WASHINGTON -- The debate over allowing homosexual couples to marry -- a dispute being fought out in many state legislatures -- became an issue for Congress yesterday as several lawmakers moved to stop the idea from gaining ground.
Identical bills offered in the House and Senate are designed to embolden the resistance that has led eight states -- seven of them in the past four months -- to ban same-sex marriages.
Under the bills put forth by a group of congressional Republicans, homosexual marriages would not be banned outright across the nation. But no state would have to honor any such marriage that had been allowed to occur in any other state.
Within two years, it is generally expected that the Hawaii Supreme Court will rule that couples of the same sex have a constitutional right to marry. Such a ruling would likely draw homosexual couples to the state to marry, in hopes that their legal union would be respected in their home states.
Anticipating that trend, foes of same-sex marriage have been pressing state legislatures to pass laws forbidding recognition of any such marriage.
Crossing the country with unusual speed, the issue of homosexual marriage has been considered by 33 legislatures in this year's sessions alone. In Maryland, a proposed ban failed in the General Assembly in March.
Until yesterday, the campaign was being fought in one state at a time. Yesterday, Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, and Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, with other lawmakers joining in, put the issue before Congress.
The measures were denounced by liberal members of Congress as a political ploy for the election campaign and by gay rights organizations as part of a drive they say is being orchestrated by conservative Christian activists.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado said Republicans were "desperately seeking wedge issues as we go into the campaign."
But Nickles said the effort was meant to "reaffirm what Americans have meant for more than 200 years when using the words 'marriage' and 'spouse.' "
The bills stirred up a separate debate on the constitutional issue of Congress' power to deal with marriage.
Opponents cited statements in Supreme Court opinions, dating back at least to 1890, that marriage is a matter for states to handle. The court has struck down some state laws as violations of the federal Constitution -- as it did when it nullified state laws banning interracial marriages.
But supporters of the new bills countered that the Constitution gives Congress authority to decide which laws of one state must be respected in other states.
The new bills would also change federal law so that federal benefits that go to married couples would be available only when the opposite sexes marry.