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Same-sex marriage jumps into spotlight

As recently as late January, the same-sex marriage fight was something people could track on a calendar, a matter of court dockets, legislative schedules and months between major developments. Now the terrain shifts weekly, daily, hourly.
Laurie Murray, right, Deputy Town Clerk for the Town of Brookhaven turns away after reading a statement that the town would not be issuing same-sex marriage licenses to a crowd of gay couples and their supporters in Patchogue, N.Y., Friday.
Laurie Murray, right, Deputy Town Clerk for the Town of Brookhaven turns away after reading a statement that the town would not be issuing same-sex marriage licenses to a crowd of gay couples and their supporters in Patchogue, N.Y., Friday.Ed Betz / AP file
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As recently as late January, the same-sex marriage fight was something people could track on a calendar, a matter of court dockets, legislative schedules and months between major developments.

But then, in quick succession . . .

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused to accept a "civil unions" alternative in that state, which prodded President Bush to mention the issue in his State of the Union speech, which inspired the mayor of San Francisco to allow same-sex weddings for thousands of couples, which pushed Bush to endorse a constitutional ban.

Now the terrain shifts weekly, daily, hourly. The mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., a house painter by trade, decided 10 days ago to solemnize same-sex unions, beginning with a couple of his customers. New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) picked up the hot potato and fired it at his likely next opponent, state Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer. But before Spitzer could respond, the action shifted to Portland, Ore., where same-sex couples began lining up for marriage licenses.

Jabs and counterjabs, bids and raises: This momentous culture clash has become a sort of cyclone, in which pro and con fuel and feed on each other in a rapidly tightening circle. To understand how things have happened so quickly, look no further than this pattern of action and reaction.

The issue is now "six months further down the road than we anticipated," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage. "We did not think we would be at the point of licenses being issued this early. So we had to accelerate our plans."

Writer Andrew Sullivan, an influential advocate of same-sex marriage rights, said something similar on his Web site recently: "Not so long ago, I thought I had a handle on this movement," he wrote. "But now it has a life of its own."

To many Americans, things seemed to be moving quickly on the marriage front even last fall, when the Massachusetts high court ruled, 4 to 3, that the state's constitution guaranteed equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. The ruling started a 180-day countdown to the United States' first legally approved gay weddings.

But that was only the beginning.

On Jan. 18, 10 days after being sworn in as mayor of San Francisco, a young millionaire businessman named Gavin Newsom traveled to Washington for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. During his visit, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) invited him to attend Bush's State of the Union speech.

"The speech turned pretty dramatically when the president brought up the Defense of Marriage Act and quite unequivocally talked about defending marriage as between a man and a woman," Newsom remembered in a recent interview. "I started looking around as people were giving standing ovations and applauding and cheering wildly. . . . I thought I was on another planet."

Newsom said he called his press secretary back in San Francisco, Peter Ragone, and his chief of staff, Steve Kava, and asked them: "Could you believe that speech?" As Ragone remembered it, Newsom said: "We gotta do something."

Bush's speech had not sprung from nowhere. The president was under intense pressure from religious conservatives -- a crucial constituency of his -- to endorse a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. As angry as Newsom was about the State of the Union speech, it disappointed some key Bush supporters who wanted more concrete language. Longtime conservative activist Gary Bauer recalled that he and others were frustrated by White House efforts to "fine-tune the message" on a matter of principle.

Newsom returned home determined to answer the Bush speech in a very public way. He instructed his staff to compile legal and historical background materials. The mayor believes bans on gay marriage today resemble bans on interracial marriage before 1967. Many of the same arguments the U.S. Supreme Court used to strike down racial marriage laws could be applied to this new controversy.

In fact, the first legal blow against bans on interracial marriage had been struck in California in 1948, when the state Supreme Court overturned the state's anti-miscegenation law. The same state constitution, Newsom and his lawyers thought, ought to protect same-sex marriage, even though California voters had passed a referendum limiting marriage to unions of one man and one woman.

Newsom hashed it out in a spirited exchange with about five of his senior staff members. Some aides advised him not to defy the referendum. But according to press secretary Ragone, the mayor said simply: "It may not be the political thing to do, but it's the right thing to do."

After consulting with Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco and other gay rights leaders, Newsom authorized the marriage on Feb. 12 of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, legends of the lesbian rights movement whose relationship had endured more than 50 years. They were the first of more than 3,200 couples wed so far at San Francisco City Hall.

"By putting a human face on discrimination, we would show that gay and lesbian loving couples had the same rights as heterosexual couples," the mayor reasoned recently.

He also fired up the opposition.

Blindsided
The first San Francisco wedding was on a Thursday, but Newsom did not announce it until the next day. The idea was to make it impossible for opponents of same-sex marriage to get to court before the long Presidents' Day weekend. (This was explained by a Newsom aide, who, like many proponents of gay marriage, did not want to discuss strategies and tactics on the record.) When the news broke, many opposition leaders were caught flat-footed. "It absolutely did blindside us," said Glenn T. Stanton, the point man on marriage issues for James Dobson's Colorado-based organization, Focus on the Family. "We did not have anyone in California."

Half a dozen Focus on the Family staff members -- as well as Family Research Council's Perkins, Concerned Women for America President Sandy Rios and many other activists -- had been in Boston that week trying to build support for a state constitutional amendment to trump the Massachusetts high court's decision that said all adults, including gays, have a right to marry their chosen partner. They failed to make any real headway, but Perkins said they believed they had fought gay-rights groups to an "inconclusive draw."

That Thursday evening, Feb. 12, Perkins flew to Baton Rouge, La., for a rally supporting public displays of the Ten Commandments. The next morning, he awoke to the news that hundreds of gay couples were lining up to marry in San Francisco.

At first, Perkins and other conservative leaders assumed that it would be a short-lived publicity stunt. Surely Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) would quickly terminate the spectacle.

Instead, Schwarzenegger consulted his attorney general, who went to the California Supreme Court, which declined to take emergency action, finding no "irreparable harm" in what Newsom was doing.

"We had kept our muscle focused on Massachusetts, thinking that this afternoon or tomorrow or the next day someone is going to step in and say, 'Pardon us, but California law is quite clear and you can't be doing this,' " Stanton said. Instead, the nation's airwaves were filled, day after day, with images of happy couples.

Conservatives were also infuriated by comparisons to the civil rights movement. As they hit the talk-radio circuit in a battle over whether what was happening in San Francisco was civil disobedience or just plain anarchy, elected leaders nationwide pondered what to do.

Both sides were energized. The San Francisco weddings added urgency to efforts in 35 states to strengthen the traditional definition of marriage; legislators in Wisconsin and Georgia quickly moved toward enacting state constitutional amendments. But promoters of same-sex marriage, such as lawyer Evan Wolfson, executive director of the group Freedom to Marry, also began fielding calls from mayors, commissioners, county clerks and counsels.

Though reluctant to discuss the advice he offered, Wolfson said recently that he encouraged some to consider granting marriage licenses and advised others not to, depending on the laws and circumstances of each state. "Like all civil rights movements, we try to think strategically about achieving our goal of equal justice," he said.

Even Wolfson was surprised, though, by news from Sandoval County, N.M., that the clerk there had decided to license same-sex marriages. On the other side of the fight, Perkins of the Family Research Council reacted to this "lawlessness," as he called it, by convening a conference call among a loose confederation of religious conservatives dedicated to blocking gay marriage, known as the Arlington Group. That call was a watershed, several participants said. After collaborating informally for six months, Arlington Group leaders jointly hired or lent several full-time staff members to work out of the Family Research Council's office on G Street NW and ponied up money to buy newspaper ads.

They also stepped up pressure on the White House.

For weeks, presidential adviser Karl Rove had been assuring them that Bush would endorse a constitutional amendment -- when the timing was right. Administration officials say Bush's support came with an "if necessary" clause.

As the days ticked by, Arlington Group members said, they began to wonder whether Bush would meet the end-of-February deadline they said Rove had promised.

"Clearly there was a sense," Bauer said, "that this was out of control."

The shortened timeline
On Tuesday, Feb. 24, Bush called on Congress to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment, finally satisfying the conservative activists -- but deeply offending Mayor Jason West of tiny New Paltz, N.Y. Last summer, as the first Green Party mayor in state history, West said he told friends in the gay community, "I want to perform marriages." He instructed the village attorney to study the legality, and the lawyer decided there was no reason not to move forward.

The first warm days of spring seemed like a lovely time for it.

"But national events sent that timeline up a little bit," West said. After Bush's call for a constitutional ban, the mayor said, "I couldn't wait any longer to add my voice to this growing chorus."

At the time of Bush's statement, West was painting the home of Billiam van Roestenberg and Jeffrey McGowan. While standing in their dining room, which is decorated with busts of Benjamin Franklin and other patriotic flourishes, West asked whether his customers would like to be wed.

A week later, West seemed unconcerned to find himself facing 19 misdemeanor criminal charges for stretching -- or defying -- the marriage laws of New York. His actions may speed the issue of same-sex marriage to the high court of New York, just as Newsom has pumped the issue onto California's high court docket.

Moreover, West's action prompted Attorney General Spitzer to announce his view that New York law, while forbidding same-sex marriages, requires recognition of such marriages performed elsewhere -- a major step that was nearly drowned out in the din of activity last week. And West has company, as near as Ithaca, N.Y., and as distant as Portland, Ore.

"This is the fastest-growing civil rights movement we've seen in a generation," he said. "I don't think I'd be able to live with myself if I backed down because of a jail term."

Inside the cyclone
The warring factions disagree on whether this cyclone ultimately helps or hurts one side or the other.

Gay rights advocate Wolfson said the flurry of steps and countersteps -- of which he says he expects still more -- helped his cause by making the issue concrete.

"I think the right wing is terrified that when this changes from a hypothetical to a reality, more fair-minded people will say that the government should not be trying to take away" the thousands of marriage licenses that have been granted, he said. The countermeasures, he charged, are a matter of his opponents "trying to stampede people."

Not all gay leaders feel as sanguine about these events. For example, Rick Garcia, political director for Equality Illinois, worries that too much focus on the marriage issue could jeopardize legislation outlawing discrimination against gays. "Sometimes, it makes our job harder," he said.

For Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the religious conservative movement in politics, the events in San Francisco and since are a kind of political Pearl Harbor, a sudden attack that first rocked, then unified, the country.

"I must say, we ought to have the mayor of San Francisco on our payroll," Weyrich said. Newsom "really energized people in a way that would not have been possible. I think that President Bush would not have acted when he did. . . . I think in one sense the activists on the other side may have outsmarted themselves."

Which assessment is correct is a later chapter in this suddenly fast-moving book. But there is no question that the book will belong on the history shelf -- no longer a mere curiosity. And as some gay-rights advocates noted, how fast it all feels may depend on your perspective.

For Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the events of recent weeks were more than 50 years in the making.

Staff writers Evelyn Nieves in San Francisco, Robert E. Pierre in Chicago and Mike Allen in Washington and special correspondent Michelle Garcia in New York contributed to this report.