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

WASHINGTON — 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.

The Rev. Philip Wogaman, pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, which President Clinton often attends, is uncomfortable with that position. He says that although he is barred from performing a gay wedding, "pastoral recognition and caring support is another matter. I am supportive of stability and monogamy in all sexual relationships, and I'm opposed to promiscuity."


He adds, referring to the church's position, "I'd have to say the whole subject is loaded with hypocrisy if hypocrisy means a gap between what we profess and what we practice."

The Roman Catholic Church is unequivocal on the issue. "I would not foresee, given our tradition, there being an official ceremony noting and celebrating same-sex unions," said the Rev. Patrick Earl, director of campus ministries at Loyola College.

But such issues have divided the Presbyterian church. The Rev. John Sharp, the pastor at Govans Presbyterian Church, which calls itself an "inclusive" church, says he does not believe the Bible addresses such issues clearly enough to forbid such marriages.

"My own feeling is marriage has changed over the centuries," he says. "It was not always monogamous; it was not always a marriage of equals. Marriage can continue to reflect change within the society. But that's a major step for society to take."

Indeed, David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and author of "Fatherless America," argues that society has moved from prohibiting to permitting homosexual lifestyles only in the past 20 years, and is not ready to go any further.

"We valorize and esteem marriage as an institution in a way we don't esteem any other institution," he says. "People are perfectly willing to say, 'Live and let live.' But they don't want the institution of marriage changed in order to give a privilege to behavior they are only willing to permit."


He and others say Americans may also have misgivings about same-sex union because of the pervasive sense that the institution of marriage has taken a beating in recent years -- America has the highest divorce rate in the world. The fear, Blankenhorn says, is that making changes, even in the margins, would further chip away at the moral underpinnings of marriage.

"There's got to be some place where you say, 'Enough!' " says Tom Lally, 46, owner of a Northern Virginia bakery who has been married for 15 years.

Lally, like others, also expresses concern about the consequences of awarding tax and health benefits to gay "spouses." Although he works with a number of gay men and considers himself accepting of them, he says, "They're wanting everybody to pay for what they're doing. It's not right."

And then there is the matter of children. Many people said they were uncomfortable with the idea of gay couples adopting and raising children -- an idea that has sparked court battles -- and some said they had vague worries about the example such couples would set for their children.

But for others, whether to support same-sex marriage boils down to the nature vs. nurture debate. Those who favor such unions generally believe that homosexuals do not choose their sexual orientation and thus should not be punished for it or deprived of rights accorded heterosexuals.

"I think it's inherent," says Sara Byars, 44, of Columbia, the mother of a 6-year-old boy. "You're born one way or another."


She is not worried, she says, that her son might copy the behavior of a gay couple he might see keeping house, noting that he already sees depictions of homosexuality in popular culture. "It's on TV; it's everywhere," she says.

It's not surprising that acceptance of homosexual marriage is correlated with age -- the older the generation, the greater the opposition. In the Gallup poll, only 54 percent of those ages 18 to 29 oppose it, while 66 percent of those ages 30 to 49, 78 percent of those 50 to 64, and 80 percent of those 65 or older oppose gay marriages.

Such generation gaps remind Bryant, the preschool director, of the civil rights battles of the 1950s and '60s. "I had no problem at all with integration. My parents took a longer time to accept it, and my grandmother -- I don't know if she ever has," she says with a laugh.

Similarly, her four college-age children have no objections to same-sex marriage and were amazed that she had any qualms. And her mother, Bryant says, "is struggling even more than I am."

Pub Date: 6/09/96