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Equivocating on marriage

ONE WAY or the other, the proposed federal constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage is likely to be defeated when it comes to a vote in the Senate today. But we would rather see a clean vote on the merits (or demerits) of this disgraceful idea rather than have it quietly dispatched by a procedural maneuver.

A majority of senators -- including both John Kerry and John Edwards as well as several Republicans -- are prepared to vote against amending the Constitution to restrict individual rights for the first time. This is especially laudable considering the political tinge the Bush administration has given the issue, with the president supporting the amendment and even Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter is gay, reversing his moderate position from the 2000 campaign.

But yesterday some of the strongest proponents of the gay marriage ban, led by Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, lost the courage of their convictions and pressed the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, to let the amendment die through a cloture vote. Because such a procedural vote is controlled by the leadership, it would likely garner more party-line Republican support than a vote on the issue itself, avoiding an embarrassing rebuke for the White House.

Intense negotiations have been under way all week over the form the vote will take on the amendment, which was offered by Colorado Republican Senator Wayne Allard. His proposed language would not simply define marriage as the exclusive privilege of heterosexuals -- discrimination enough -- but could restrict the rights of individual state courts to endorse civil unions or domestic partnership laws. Some Republicans hope to substitute language that simply declares marriage as between a man and a woman and remains mute on other arrangements, again in order to pick up a few more votes.

Regardless of these particulars, the marriage amendment would do violence to the Constitution in several ways: It would single out one class of Americans for discrimination; it would upset the delicate balance of federal and states' rights; and it would impose severe strictures on the judicial branch. Such a narrow -- not to mention narrow-minded -- exception for one kind of civil right does not belong in the nation's declaration of freedoms. Even Americans who oppose gay marriage -- a majority in most polls -- don't think the Constitution should be tampered with to ban it.

As the reality of gay families becomes more recognized nationally, we believe that Americans will see the value in giving the many thousands of children being raised by same-sex couples the legitimacy of married parents regardless of their gender. In the meantime, we hope US senators have the spine to declare that they oppose this mean-spirited movement.

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