While the Massachusetts Legislature adjourned Feb. 13 without having added an amendment to the state’s constitution banning same-sex marriage, the nation’s attention swung to the other coast when San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The debate over gay marriage is shaping up to be a key issue in this November’s elections. In his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush vowed to ban same-sex marriages, even going so far as to support a constitutional amendment to do so. Many conservatives are holding fast to the notion that gay marriage is an affront to morals.

However, for many, the debate is about more than the ability of a same-sex couple to be married. Massachusetts State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson compared the issue to the racism she was faced with as a Black child in Arkansas.

“I know the pain of being less than equal and I cannot and will not impose that status on anyone else,” Wilkerson said with tears in her eyes. “I was but one generation removed from an existence in slavery. I could not in good conscience ever vote to send anyone to that place from which my family fled.”

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom also invoked the broader principle of equal rights. He based his decision to allow marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples, a defiance of the California Family Code, on the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

In the first week of issuing the marriage licenses, over 2,000 couples from around the country had waited in long lines for the opportunity to be legally married. The first couple to be married were veteran gay-rights activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who celebrated their 51st anniversary – and third day of marriage – on Valentine’s Day.

In a statement released Feb. 13, Matt Foreman, executive director or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, enthusiastically greeted Martin and Lyon’s marriage, saying it grants the couple “tangible rights and benefits, and – at long last – full equality with other married couples in the eyes of the law and society.”

But while same-sex couples continue to flock to San Francisco to be married, opponents of the marriages headed to the courts, hoping to force the city to stop issuing marriage licenses and make those already issued null and void.

Taking on some of the more extreme arguments put forth by conservatives, Foreman stated, “Contrary to the fear-mongering of our opponents, Phyllis and Del’s marriage will not result in the collapse of Western civilization or cause millions of heterosexual marriages to suddenly disintegrate.”

On May 17, same-sex couples in Massachusetts will also be able to marry. That state’s Supreme Court decided earlier this year that such marriages are legal. The debate there continues March 11, when the Legislature reconvenes its constitutional convention. While many hope that an amendment to the constitution can be defeated in the Legislature, the final approval of any amendment will lay with the state’s voters in 2006.

While the spotlight has been on Massachusetts and San Francisco this week, gay rights activists around the country took part in National Freedom to Marry Day on Feb. 12. In Ohio, many took the opportunity to protest Gov. Bob Taft’s recent signing of a ban on gay marriage in the state. The ban is the most far-reaching of the 38 such state-based bans. It makes Ohio only the second state to deny benefits such as health insurance to unmarried partners.

In Denver, a Valentine’s Day protest in opposition to a ban on gay marriage drew nearly 2,000 people, including that city’s mayor, John Hickenlooper. Those at the protest called on Rep. Marilyn Musgrove (R-Colo.) to withdraw her support of a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage and on the state Legislature to reject a resolution declaring support for such an amendment.

“I hope in the full spirit of justice and equal rights for all citizens of this city and this entire state, our legislators will choose not to send this divisive message,” Hickenlooper told the crowd. “I hope instead that citizens and leaders of both Denver and Colorado will send a message to Washington that we want equality, fairness, hope and unity for all our citizens.”

The author can be reached at jbarnett@pww.org.