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Making Amends on Gay Marriage 

Amendment may be the far right's last hurrah

This gay marriage debate has almost made me nostalgic for traditional values. What happened to the good old days when men were men, women were women — and Harrisburg Republicans proudly proclaimed their own bigotry?

Sure, last week the state House passed a "Marriage Protection Amendment" by a lopsided 136-61 vote. "Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid" in Pennsylvania, the amendment asserts; it also prohibits civil unions or any other legal status "substantially equivalent to that of marriage." Those are the old-fashioned values that made Leviticus such a breezy read.

So where's the old fire and brimstone to go with them?

Why, for example, are legislators directing their ire not at gays but "activist judges"? The phrase pops up repeatedly in pro-amendment rhetoric; Lancaster Republican Steven Denlinger even called the amendment a "legislative victory over our judicial branch." You'd almost think the amendment prevents judges from marrying.

Such dishonesty wasn't necessary a few years ago. But it seems Republicans have now decided demonizing judges is safer than being branded a homophobe. Even Sen. Rick Santorum has learned the lesson. During his infamous "man-on-dog" AP interview, Santorum claimed, "I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts." So no fair calling him names!

State Republicans have gone further: Some laud the amendment not just for the freedoms it takes away, but for those it protects.

As Denlinger noted, "The Marriage Protection Amendment does not strip the rights of same-sex couples to adopt children." Fellow Lancaster Republican Scott Boyd, who sponsored the amendment, agrees: "[U]nder current law, same-sex couples [can] adopt children," he acknowledged in a public statement. But his amendment "is not a tool to take back any right or benefit currently afforded unmarried individuals," gay or straight.

In other words, Republicans boast of protecting "traditional" families by preventing gay adults from marrying … while blithely asserting that gay adults can still adopt kids. In the old days, this was about when conservatives started crying, Won't somebody think of the children?

You'd think the Pennsylvania Family Institute, the amendment's chief backer, would be doing so. The May/June issue of its newsletter, Pennsylvania Citizen, included an article by a psychologist opining "there are numerous philosophical, sociological and legal reasons for objecting to same-sex marriage, but [the] greatest concern is the impact it will have on children." Yet the PFI is celebrating this amendment, despite the fact that backers say it will do nothing to protect adopted kids.

"Different members of the coalition [supporting the amendment] have different feelings about how far this should go," admits PFI President Michael Geer. "Whenever you draft an amendment, there are people who propose all sorts of other issues." But the coalition's goal "is to protect the institution of marriage from activist judges. The amendment is narrowly drawn for that purpose."

Of course, Boyd and Geer could be lying. "No one is clear on what the amendment's impact will be," observes Stacey Sobel, head of Philadelphia's Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights.

Pennsylvania law contains "hundreds of provisions based on whether somebody is married. We'd have to look at every one of those laws to see how Pennsylvania families can be impacted. It's shameful our legislators are willing to write discrimination into the Constitution without saying what it would mean."

But if conservatives need such tactics to win, that's a defeat in itself. It suggests that "nontraditional" relationships are becoming more acceped, and that the GOP can no longer be honest about its goals.

Indeed, 10 House Republicans voted against the amendment. Most represent the Philly area, where voters are more moderate on social issues. While this amendment will rally the party's conservative base, then, it may also backfire on statewide candidates including Santorum and gubernatorial hopeful Lynn Swann, who need every Philly vote they can get this year.

Whatever the outcome of the 2006 elections, history is not on the Republicans' side. Here they are, after all, defending their amendment by claiming it won't take away things like domestic-partner benefits — benefits that were unthinkable a few years ago.

Democrats have their own problems, starting with the 41 who voted for this amendment. But perhaps Republicans, too, are splintering over these hateful wedge issues. I've been waiting years for the right wing to start choking on its own hatred. That won't happen for awhile yet. But it may be starting to sputter.

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