Many gay-civil rights advocates are currently striving to have the United States join Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden in recognizing the legal right of homosexual people to marry. Why is securing this right important?

First, it would end discrimination in marriage and provide equality under govern­mental laws (Olson, 2010). In good conscience, how can a democratic country withhold the civil right of marriage from law-abiding, taxpaying same-sex partners? As a graduate student clarified this view, "I feel about marriage the same way I do about the military: It isn’t an institution I wish to join, but if it exists, it ought to be open to everyone" (Gaboury, 2005, p. 29).

The U. S. government has changed marriage laws based on equal rights many times in its history. It ended the legal subordination of women in marriage by eliminating laws that prohibited married women from owning property and entering into contracts. It made marital rape illegal. Federal law established the right of people of different races to marry. Laws also changed to give couples, not the government, the right to decide to divorce. Such changes have helped evolve marriage into a union of equals who are together because of love and a desire to make a commitment to build a life with one another (Coontz, 2005).

Each time in the past when a law was changed to establish greater equality and privacy in marriage, opponents fought the change, many claiming that it went against God’s will and would ruin the institution of marriage. A large portion of the funds for current legislative campaigns against gay marriage come from religious groups (Kirch – ick, 2009b). However, U. S. democracy is based on the principle of separation of church and state, and religion should not dictate to government which couples can obtain civil marriage licenses (Sullivan, 2011). Freedom of religion guarantees the right of every church not to marry any specific couple for any reason, but religion is a common basis for opposition to same-sex civil marriage, as expressed by William Bennett, editor of The Book of Virtues and codirector of Empower America:

The legal union of same-sex couples would shatter the conventional definition of marriage, change the rules which govern behavior, endorse practices which are completely antithetical to the tenets of all of the world’s religions, send conflicting

signals about marriage and sexuality, particularly to the young, and obscure mar­riage’s enormous consequential function—procreation and child-rearing. (Ben­nett, 1996, p. 27)

In contrast, a proponent of gay marriage, Andrew Sullivan (formerly a senior editor of The New Republic and author of Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexual­ity), stated:

What we seek is not some special place in America but merely to be a full and equal part of America. . . . Some of us are lucky enough to meet the person we truly love. And we want to commit to that person in front of our family and country for the rest of our lives. . . . Why indeed would any conservative seek to oppose those very family values for gay people that he or she supports for everybody else? (Sullivan, 1996, p. 26)

A significant setback to civil rights in marriage for sexual minorities occurred in 1996 when the U. S. Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This act denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages that were made legal in individual states, and it gave states the right not to recognize such marriages performed in other states. With DOMA in place, gay and lesbian families and their chil­dren in the United States lack the 1,000-plus federal benefits that married heterosexual couples have, including benefits regarding inheritance; Social Security; child custody; immigration rights; joint insurance policies for health, home, or auto; and status as next of kin for hospital visits or even for making funeral arrangements for a partner (Move­ment Advancement Project, 2011; Murphy, 2011). Ironically, although the ban on gay men and lesbians serving in the military no longer exists, DOMA prohibits active-mil­itary same-sex couples from receiving standard service benefits such as housing, health insurance, death benefits, and shopping privileges at the base commissary (Dao, 2011). In 2011 President Obama directed the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in court on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. However, at the time of this writing the law remains in effect, and it is unknown whether the current Congress and the Obama administration will revoke the Defense of Marriage Act (Savage & Stolberg, 2011).

Many are perplexed by the name "Defense of Marriage Act," wondering how pre­venting same-sex marriages "defends" heterosexual marriages. As conservative Repub­lican Bob Hall states, "The anti-same-sex-marriage amendment isn’t going to help my marriage by so much as a red whisker. If you think it will protect your marriage, that marriage is already shot" (Hall, 2006, p. 1). Ironically, in 2003, Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, had the lowest divorce rate in the United States: 5.7 divorces per 1,000 married people. In contrast, some of the states where strong opposition to same-sex marriage predomi­nates have the highest rates: 10.8 divorces per 1,000 married people in Kentucky and 12.7 in Arkansas (Goldberg, 2006).

At the state level, in 2011, 37 states had discriminatory laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2011b). In contrast, in 2004 Mas­sachusetts affirmed a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, mak­ing it the first state to issue fully legal marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Maine,

Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington subsequently legalized same-sex marriage (National Gay and Les­bian Task Force, 2011). Some states that have not established gay marriage have approved civil unions or domestic partnership laws that provide some or all of the 300 rights, benefits, and responsi­bilities that states provide to married heterosexual couples. These

include California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.

About 22% of all same-sex couples in the United States have formalized their relationships under state laws of vari­ous types (Badgett & Herman, 2011). Some same-sex couples consider the increased legitimacy and benefits of civil union to be highly important, while others do not consider civil union to be significant in comparison to marriage (Rothblum et al.,

2011) . The percentage of same-sex couples who marry is sig­nificantly higher than the percentage of couples who estab­lish civil unions and domestic partnerships, indicating that the meaning of marriage goes beyond the practical aspects of I a legally recognized relationship (Gates et ah, 2008). Being I married may provide psychological as well as practical ben­I efits for gays and lesbians (Buffie, 2011; Shulman et al., 2012). Research does indicate that discriminatory laws and antigay political initiatives against same-sex marriage create psychological stress for sexual minorities and their families (Fingerhut et al., 2011; Frost, 2011; Herek, 2011).

In 2011, for the first time several national polls of the general population found over 50% support for same-sex marriage. Younger people, women, liberal Democrats, and peo­ple who were not affiliated with a religion tended to view same-sex marriage more favor­ably (Sherkat et al., 2011). Support for same-sex marriage has increased and is expected to continue to do so because of younger people’s more accepting attitudes. In addition, in May 2012, President Obama announced his personal support of same-sex marriage.

Controversy over legal civil marriage for gays and lesbians will play out at the state and national levels for years to come. The conflict is about much more than two same – sex people marrying; it is also about what kind of country the United States will be: "Is America indeed to be a nation where we all, minorities as well as majorities, popular as well as unpopular, get to make important choices in our lives, or is it to be a land of liberty and justice for some?" (Wolfson, 2005, p. 18).