- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

If California were an independent country, it would be among a “Group of 10” economic powers, with a population greater than Canada’s or Australia’s.

So, when California moves on something as controversial as same-sex marriage, it affects not only other U.S. states, but countries around the world.

A California court decision in May establishing a right to same-sex marriages - which faces a ballot challenge in November - is a major battle in a global culture war that is slowly winning legal acceptance for some form of gay union.

“Every year, a new country is joining the club,” said Katharina Boele-Woelki, a professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who specializes in international and comparative family law.

About 20 countries and 10 U.S. states now allow either same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships.

“Worldwide, I think the countries that allow this will increase slowly but steadily,” Ms. Boele-Woelki said.

According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 6,300 marriage licenses - more than double the average for that time period - were granted in California in the first week after the state Supreme Court’s ruling allowing same-sex marriage went into effect June 16.

However, the issue isn’t settled yet. The initiative slated for the November ballot, if passed, would amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. While a May 28 Field Poll concluded that a majority of Californians support gay marriage, a first in the state’s history, polls since have been inconclusive.

Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that promotes traditional marriage, called the vote the “ninth inning in the World Series of the marriage debate.”

Generally, governments that adopt same-sex marriage legislation lean to the left on the political spectrum. They include the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada.

In European countries, there’s a more laissez-faire attitude toward sex and marriage, said Kimberly Richman, a professor of sociology and legal studies at the University of San Francisco.

Religion also plays a role. While the U.S. religious right has made opposition to same-sex marriage a central tenet of its political agenda, “that just doesn’t exist in Canada, or the Netherlands orSpain,” said Paula Ettlebrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Campaign.

Sylvia Brasselman, a German scientist living in San Francisco with her partner, Kathy Emery, agrees.

“I think that Americans are generally less tolerant, and I’m talking really about both the left and the right, both liberals and conservatives,” she said. “I find this a very split society, and neither group is very willing to compromise. … That’s different in Germany or Europe.”

Rights enshrined in the more-than-two-centuries-old U.S. Constitution are hard to redefine. Countries with newer constitutions are finding it easier to adapt.

After operating for more than a century under British rule, Canada adopted a separate constitution in 1982 - and incorporated sweeping anti-discrimination measures.

“We were able to learn from some of the roadblocks in the U.S.,” said Hillary Cook, a board member and legal committee chairwoman of Egale Canada, a group that promotes equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual Canadians and their families.

Although sexual orientation isn’t specifically protected from discrimination in the Canadian Constitution, it’s considered to be on “analogous ground” with those that are listed, such as race, age and religion.

Similarly, South Africa wrote its constitution in 1996, with the wounds of apartheid still fresh.

“South Africa is a specific and kind of unique place in that their national constitution prohibits sexual-orientation discrimination,” said Christopher Anders, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian & Gay Rights Project. “It represents the commitment of South Africa and its government to make sure that discrimination of all forms was prohibited.”

In Europe, the drive to formulate a uniform set of rights for European Union member states has had an effect, even though marriage rights are left to individual member countries to decide. Now three EU states - Netherlands, Belgium and Spain - allow same-sex marriage, and 10 other countries allow gay civil unions.

Uruguay became the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex unions with a parliamentary vote in December 2007. Elsewhere in the region, some city and state jurisdictions in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil have voted to extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples.

In Asia, repeated attempts between 2000 and 2006 by advocacy groups to legalize gay marriage in China failed. In many countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, homosexuality itself is illegal, punishable by prison terms, public flogging or even execution - making decriminalization the immediate focus of the rights debate.

In the United States, Vermont was the first to allow civil unions for homosexuals in July 2000, followed by Massachusetts in 2004, by court decree - and now California.

Americans who oppose same-sex marriage say the issue should be left to the states, pointing to the nearly 30 states that have banned the practice in their constitutions or plan to do so.

Advocates of same-sex marriage rights have turned to the courts, and say it’s a matter of time before same-sex marriage is permitted throughout the United States.

“I think that having California … take this step to treat gay and lesbian couples equally will have a huge ripple effect on people in other states,” said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “We will see people getting used to the reality of having hundreds of thousands of married gay and lesbian couples” living both in California and other states.

However, Ms. Gallagher, of the National Organization for Marriage, said opponents are not giving up.

“It was four judges in California and four judges in Massachusetts,” she said, adding that the Massachusetts legislature would never have passed a gay marriage law on its own.

While the future of gay marriage in the U.S. remains unclear, the experiences of other Western nations may suggest a way forward.

Ms. Cook, of Egale Canada, said that by the time the federal government officially sanctioned gay marriage in Canada in 2005, most provinces had already legalized various types of same-sex relationships, beginning with a court ruling in Ontario in 2003. This led to a case of patchwork privileges, similar to that of the United States and the European Union.

As the EU seeks to make more and more policies uniform, the ACLU’s Mr. Anders said, continentwide gay marriage will likely be addressed.

“Given the eternally open borders in Europe right now,” he said, “we would expect that marriage will be both recognized and allowed throughout Europe very soon.”

Ms. Gallaghersaid that if voters in California repudiate the court’s decision in November, it will give momentum to a wave of cases and states now considering the issue.

“I think it will be a great and continuing victory,” she said. “It will start the next great wave” of legislation outlining conservative definitions of marriage.

“The idea that this 2,000-year-old tradition … doesn’t have legs anymore, I don’t buy it,” she said flatly. “It’s at the front of the culture war, but … the only certainties are death and taxes.”

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