People dropped their teeth when two males applied for a marriage license (denied) in Washington.

If you had a popular vote, whether they could marry, the majority would say no, marriages cannot exist between partners of one sex.

The troublesome word is "marriage." If you asked those same voters whether homosexual, or gay, people should be allowed to hold jobs, to rent apartments, to be taxed equally with others -- in short, if gays should have the same rights before the law as heterosexuals, the vote would be in their favor.

Marriage, to many Americans, is a religious undertaking as well as a legal contract. When I married I said, "With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow."

Most who get married say something similar, and in many cases the marriage is defined as a sacrament or as a holy estate, with references to the wedding at Cana and the water turned to wine, etc.

The result is that quite apart from theological sanctions the average citizen has a fairly firm notion what marriage is, based on immemorial custom.

The two gay men who wish to make a lifelong commitment certainly do not fit the rules of marriage that exist in most churches at the present. Therefore, it is commonly thought, there can be no valid marriage.

But not so fast. There is also no valid marriage, as far as the state is concerned, without a license from the state. And the state has no religious color, neither opposing nor endorsing the religious theories of marriage.

As everybody knows, atheists can and do marry. A couple whose marriage is disapproved of by a church is nevertheless married if the state has issued a license and if no legal divorce has taken place.

Both the state and the churches use the same word, "marriage," to cover quite different views, and that leads to much of the confusion a gay couple faces in these marriage cases.

It's argued that if gay "marriages" were allowed, it would set a bad example for the young. As if the young might suddenly say, "Come to think of it, I'd rather be married to another guy." Everybody knows that is not going to happen.

Another argument is that gays do not deserve the dignity of a married state. Why? Well, a majority does not approve of a gay life, so to hell with them.

The state, however, does not or should not have the luxury of indulging its prejudices based on sex or race or color or religious status.

Gays cannot bear children, it's argued, and children are at the heart of marriage. But many straight couples are barren but still married for all that. Gays can adopt children. Or would you say straights who adopt children are not really married since the kids are not genetically their own?

What do gays want, you might ask. Isn't it enough they aren't executed anymore?

Well, I imagine they are glad not to be burned at the stake nowadays, but they do not regard this as any great favor conferred on them, simply a belated form of justice.

One thing gays want, the ones who wish to get married, is the legal consequences of marriage, which, if one may say so without offense, are a great deal stronger than the religious ones as a practical matter.

There are secular consequences of marriage, ranging from laws on the division of property, the status of next of kin, the rules of inheritance, the rules of court testimony and so on.

No doubt some gay couples would ask for no more than these legal results of their commitment to a lifetime partner.

It could be argued, and is, that gay relationships are casual and temporary. As distinct from the eternal commitments of straight marriage such as we see in Zsa Zsa Gabor and those millions of other heterosexuals who have kept divorce courts busy.

If a gay man dies after living 30 years with a male partner, it may happen the two have together worked to build a business or acquired possessions, but it can also happen that the surviving partner has remarkably little property rights if the deceased has not made a valid will. It can also happen that blood relatives of the dead man have always disapproved of the gay union and do not allow the survivor any say at all, even in funeral arrangements.

The family members may disapprove, but they should not have the right to recast his life when he dies to suit their own views of how he should have lived.

If the state licenses permanent unions (and again Zsa Zsa comes to mind) between straights, ensuring legal consequences in many directions, it is hard to see why gays should not have the same rights. Of course one is free to complain that it's all just dreadful.

There remains the question of religious blessing or endorsement of the gay union. I don't see why that should concern the state or society at large. It is no affair of mine what various churches proclaim on the morality of drinking Cokes.

The state may not dictate theological views to a church, but a church may not dictate to the state what the legal rights of citizens, including gays, should be.

The state should devise a means to give gay couples the same rights in court that straight couples have. But as long as the word "marriage" is insisted upon, the civil rights of gay men and women are likely to be long in coming.