Debate Heats Up over Same-Sex Marriages in New England, Gay-Rights Cases Signal There Is No Simple Path to Consensus

Article excerpt

In recent weeks New England has become the focal point for the latest intense legal battles over legitimizing homosexual partnerships.

Across the US, many communities have inched toward granting homosexuals the rights that come with marriage - such as health- insurance benefits and legal status as parents. And with equal fervency, opponents have argued that American society will be threatened if the definition of marriage extends beyond the traditional form of one woman and one man.

The questions at issue are likely to confront generations to come: Should gay and lesbian relationships be sanctioned, and to what degree?

There is no simple path to consensus - in the courts and in society at large - as the New England cases show:

*A plan to extend insurance benefits to the domestic partners of Boston's employees was struck down recently by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. For cities to grant such benefits, the legislature would have to change a 1967 law that gives coverage only to spouses and dependent children.

*The same court recently expanded the parental rights of homosexuals. A gay partner who co-parents a child can be entitled to visitation rights after a breakup, it ruled. Only a few other states recognize such "de facto" parents, and many do not allow homosexuals to adopt.

*In Vermont, a ruling is pending in a Supreme Court case brought by several gay couples who were refused marriage licenses. Some advocates say the court is likely to approve same-sex marriage, and that, unlike in Alaska and Hawaii, the state's constitutional amendment process would make it difficult to counteract such a decision.

*Even church disputes have wound up in court. A group of parishioners filed suit in Plymouth County last week against the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. The worshippers were banned from church grounds because they tried to split from the diocese after it voted to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Striving to be recognized

The push for recognition of family ties among homosexuals has surged in recent years for several reasons. For one, the movement has largely achieved some of its earlier objectives, such as bringing homosexuality "out of the closet" and convincing more of the public that homosexuals should not be discriminated against in jobs or housing. Asking for equal rights when it comes to forming families is a natural next step, says Kenneth Sherrill, a political scientist at the City University of New York's Hunter College.

"Gay people are starting to feel ... entitled to the benefits" that come with marriage, adds Beatrice Dohrn, legal director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, a gay-rights group. …