Hawaii moves to legalise gay marriages

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The Independent Online
A denouement is approaching in the bitterly divisive argument here over gay marriages, as Hawaii moves towards becoming the first state formally to legalise the practice - the latest round in a controversy which pits liberals against conservatives, state against state, and which could have an impact on the presidential election campaign this autumn.

Barring a major surprise in the courts, it seems likely that, despite the furious efforts of Christian and conservative groups across the country, Hawaii will have no choice but to put a gay or lesbian marriage on the same legal footing as one between a man and a woman within the next few weeks.

Driving the issue is a complaint first filed in 1991 by three homosexual couples in Hawaii that they were discriminated against when the state refused to allow them marriage licences. The case, requiring Hawaii to show a "compelling interest" for its action, is due be ruled upon by an appeals court in August. Most legal experts believe the state will lose, especially since Hawaii's own constitution outlaws discrimination based upon sex.

The outcome could be legal chaos across the country. In an effort to pre-empt Hawaii, four states - Utah, Idaho, South Dakota and most recently Georgia last week - have passed laws explicitly banning recognition of same-sex marriages carried out elsewhere. A dozen have rejected such a measure, but 15 others are still debating it, several of them states where Christian fundamentalists wield much influence.

This in turn raises a constitutional quandary which only the Supreme Court can resolve. Gay marriages will be legal in some states and not in others. Unlike Hawaii's constitution, the US Constitution does not ban discrimination on the basis of sex.

But it does require that each state give "full faith and credit" to the "public acts and proceedings" of another.

Thus gay couples may flock to Hawaii to marry and obtain the rights which marriage brings, and then demand those rights be respected in their home state as well.

The rights in question affect everything from pensions and social-security benefits to taxation, alimony and divorce, even child custody and the immigration rights of a spouse/partner from another country. But, however weighty, those considerations pale beside the basic moral controversy, which could have a bearing on the presidential campaign.

Homosexual groups, an increasingly well-organised force, say marriage is a basic human right. They argue that to extend it to gays as well will only enhance the "family values" and social stability so dear to both major parties. Even so, both Democrats and Republicans will have to tread exceedingly carefully on the issue.

During his 1992 election campaign, President Bill Clinton wooed the gay community with some success - only to see his support for the right of homosexuals to serve in the military create a controversy the following year which shook his young administration to its roots. Since then the White House has not breathed a word on the issue.

And Bob Dole, Senate Majority Leader and Mr Clinton's presumed opponent in November, has also had problems negotiating the hazards of gay politics. Last year Mr Dole accepted a campaign donation from the Log Cabin gay rights group, only to have aides return it when he was told of its source. That volte-face, however was criticised as a cave-in to the religious right - with the result that Mr Dole changed his mind again and accepted the money.