Much of public not ready to embrace gay marriage Topic a volatile one in an election year

June 09, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When a couple -- two women -- recently asked whether the registration form at the Govans Presbyterian Church preschool could be changed from "Mother's name" and "Father's name" to "Co-Parents' names," the school's director, Beth Bryant, had to stop and think.

She welcomes the children of "same-sex" parents into her school and encourages anything that makes life easier for gay couples. The pastor at the adjoining church even performs "holy unions" for gay couples, which she applauds. Still, she decided against changing the form.

"I'm not ready to do that," said Bryant, a 55-year-old mother of four college-age children.

Like much of the public, Bryant is accepting of homosexual couples, especially as she has come to know some simply "as people." But, also like much of the public, she isn't sure she's ready to support gay unions as legally recognized marriages.

The topic has become one of the most volatile of the political season. Hawaii, which is considering whether to legally recognize same-sex marriages, triggered the debate. Now Congress is moving on a bill, the Defense of Marriage Act, to declare marriage to be a union between a man and a woman and to give states the right to refuse recognition of a gay marriage performed in another state -- say, Hawaii. Bob Dole is a sponsor of the Senate version. And President Clinton has said he would sign such a bill.

Clinton's support for such a bill has so angered the gay community that San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown urged the president to cancel his scheduled trip today to the city. Clinton planned to proceed with his California trip.

The debate so far has been defined mainly by those positioned at opposite poles: gay-rights activists, who argue that homosexuals are entitled to all the rights of heterosexuals, and social conservatives, who maintain that same-sex unions threaten traditional family values and would lead to the sanctioning of other unorthodox arrangements, such as polygamy.

But most of America falls into a gulf between them -- uneasy about denying legal status, and the benefits it brings, to a whole class of people, but perhaps even more uneasy about radically changing the cherished, centuries-old institution of marriage.

"I have very ambivalent feelings," says Paige Knipp of Baltimore, a 40-year-old former banker and a mother of three. "I'm sympathetic to their plight. I am concerned, however, about the long-range effects on society. There are a lot of centrifugal forces operating on the family."

Her view is typical. According to recent polls, almost three in four Americans oppose same-sex marriage. And many of the opponents would, by other measures, be called socially liberal.

In an April Gallup poll, 56 percent of those who favored abortion rights said they opposed gay marriage. And up to half of those who call themselves "liberal" said they opposed legal recognition of gay marriages in their state.

Such opposition is not necessarily a sign of bigotry against homosexuals, says William A. Galston, director of the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, but rather a product of "innate caution and conservatism."

"People have a vague but powerful intuition that marriage has been defined in one way for a very long time and that there might be reasons for that that are discovered after we change it," says Galston, a former adviser to Clinton. "Marriage is tied up with a lot of history. People are being asked to take an institution that has been defined one way for quite some time and say, 'No, we mean it to contemplate and embrace a much wider range of human relationships.' That's a huge leap."

The discussion is of particular concern to religious leaders. Many of them are coming face to face with the issue -- deciding whether to officiate at ceremonies between gay couples, for example, or whether to accept them as "families." They are struggling within their denominations, their congregations, even within themselves.

"We don't know where we are right now," says Rabbi Donald R. Berlin of Temple Ohem Shalom, a Reform temple in Baltimore. "We're very strongly against a discriminatory outcome. But that's a far cry from [being] willing to sanctify the relationship as marriage."

At this year's meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an organization of Reform, or liberal, rabbis, the group passed a resolution supporting civil marriages for gay couples. But a committee within the Central Conference is still examining whether those relationships would be considered marriages under Jewish law.

The issue of homosexuality dominated a meeting of the United Methodist Church this year, at which the definition of marriage as a heterosexual union was reaffirmed, as was the church's condemnation of homosexuality.

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