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FEBRUARY 07, 2004

Both Sides In Gay Marriage Debate Prepare For Battle Massachusetts Legal Opinion Stirs Up Advocates, Opponents

Opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage are girding for a battle in Hartford, both sides energized by a Massachusetts court ruling that would allow homosexual couples to marry for the first time in the nation's history.

For gay rights advocates, it's a sign that hard work is finally paying off in incremental victories.

To hear Brian Brown tell it, it's the beginning of the end of Western civilization.

"Marriage is not created by law," said Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, which is sponsoring a demonstration against gay marriage at the state Capitol on Sunday. "It's a social and anthropological institution that has lasted thousands of years."

That institution now finds itself faced with a "judicial onslaught," Brown said, that began with the approval of civil unions in Vermont in 1999, and continued Wednesday when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rendered a 4-3 opinion that civil unions are not good enough and that the state must allow gay couples to marry.

In response, the Family Institute will push for a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a strictly heterosexual union, as the Ohio state legislature did earlier this month.

The group is holding prayer vigils around the state today, and will release its draft amendment at a rally on the steps of the Capitol at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Organizers hope to draw 5,000 people.

Not to be outdone, gay rights groups have declared Freedom to Marry Week.

The advocacy group Love Makes a Family will hold a "speak-out for marriage equality" at the Emmanuel Congregational Church in Hartford.

Another group, People of Faith for Gay Civil Rights, plans a counter action called "Hunt for Weapons of Marriage Destruction," to be held just across from the Family Institute's rally in Bushnell Park.

According to Brown, the Massachusetts ruling was "a wake-up call" to those who disapprove of homosexuality but have yet to speak out.

"I think what you're going to see is that a line has been crossed," he said, "and people who weren't active before are going to stand up."

Gay rights advocates are just as excited, if in a much different way.

"I think it was very good news," said Anne Stanback, the president of Love Makes a Family.

The decision was not unexpected, she said, since the Massachusetts court had ruled in November that gay couples were entitled to the same rights as married heterosexuals. The court's most recent ruling came at the request of the state legislature, which had asked if a civil union bill would be good enough.

"The dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil marriage' and ‘civil union' is not innocuous," the court said in a majority opinion. "It is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status."

Whether a similar stance will ever become law here remains to be seen.

"I think Connecticut is a state that doesn't like to be first," Stanback said. "But we were one of the first states to protect gay people from hate crimes, one of the first to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace and housing. ... I do think we will be one of the first states to allow marriage."

Even before the Massachusetts decision, some in the Connecticut legislature said they expected a fight over the course of the short spring session, which began Wednesday.

Last April, the state House Judiciary Committee rejected a bill that would have created a registry of domestic partnerships, to allow same-sex couples the same rights enjoyed by married men and women.

Senate Minority Leader Louis C. DeLuca, R-Woodbury, who opposes gay marriage, has said he expects the issue to come up, despite a session agenda that includes medical malpractice insurance reform, a likely fight over taxes and an impeachment inquiry into Gov. John G. Rowland.

Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, the co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee and a vocal supporter of extending marriage, has called such a societal change "inevitable."

Brown dismissed that as "PR."

"In any state where they've held a vote on this, they've lost," he said. His group has solid support in the legislature, Brown said.

And Rowland has said he would sign a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage if one reached his desk.

For her part, Stanback said she and her allies are not likely to lobby for legalization during the current session.

"It's a short session anyway, and an election year," she said. "I think legislators are hesitant about bringing up issues they feel are going to be 'talkers.'"

Instead, many advocates will "let the situation in Massachusetts play out," she said.

But others may take a more active role –– by going north to get married.

"I believe a lot of same-gender couples will go and be married, and come home to Connecticut and expect to have that marriage respected," said Frank O'Gorman of People of Faith for Gay Civil Rights.

Whether state authorities want to respect such unions, they may have to, according to a report by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Research, which said state law requires that out-of-state marriages be honored. The report also said that Connecticut residents cannot marry in another state to avoid legal restrictions here.