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Until Courts Do Us Part

Monday, August 16, 2004; Page A16

THAT CALIFORNIA'S Supreme Court annulled the thousands of gay marriages performed in San Francisco this year comes as no surprise. The decision by that city's mayor, Gavin Newsom, to order city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of state statute was an exercise in civil disobedience. The court voted 5 to 2 that marriages authorized by the city cannot stand even while the courts consider the merits of the legal claim that same-sex couples have a right to marry. The court was unanimous on the mayor's authority: The question is "whether a local executive official, charged with the ministerial duty of enforcing a statute, has the authority to disregard the terms of the statute . . . based solely upon the official's opinion that the governing statute is unconstitutional. . . . [A] local executive official does not possess such authority."

But the importance of same-sex marriages in San Francisco was never chiefly legal, which is why gay-marriage foes are mistaken when they claim a great victory. The event's importance lay in its graphic illustration of what this debate is all about. Mr. Newsom's order revealed the existence of a large group of people in committed relationships who want to formalize their bonds with the same official recognition that states offer heterosexual couples. The issue is not, as some gay-marriage opponents characterize it, an ideological pursuit in behalf of a nefarious "homosexual agenda." It reflects the desire of couples to partake of society's blessing for the lives they have built for themselves. Their requests are not going away.

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True, the San Francisco demonstration -- combined with the far more important decision of the Massachusetts high court to permit gay marriage in that state -- has helped galvanize opposition to same-sex marriage, which most Americans do not favor. The result has been the failed effort to pass a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, as well as state-level efforts, most recently in Missouri, to incorporate in state constitutions the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage. Over the long haul, however, the impact is likely to be quite the opposite, as unreasonable feelings of threat give way to an increase in public comfort with the idea of gay marriage.

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