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Legal battles loom in US gay marriage debate
By Jason Szep
Thu Sep 29, 1:55 PM ET - Reuters
Connecticut legalizes gay civil unions on Saturday, the latest U.S. state to grant legal rights to gay couples, but experts say legal and political battles loom elsewhere as other states confront the intensely divisive issue and consider similar laws.
Under Connecticut's law signed in April, gays and lesbians entering into civil unions will receive largely the same rights as married couples in the state -- from insurance coverage to tax benefits and hospital visiting rights.
That differs from Massachusetts, the only state to allow full-fledged gay marriage. Unlike marriage, civil unions lack federal benefits. Couples cannot file joint federal tax returns, share pensions or acquire citizenship.
Vermont also recognizes same-sex civil unions. California, New Jersey, Maine, the District of Colombia and Hawaii each offer gay couples some legal rights as partners.
Gay marriage advocates such as Seth Kilbourn say the tide of public opinion is turning, and he expects more U.S. states to either legalize gay marriage or civil unions in coming months, beginning with Washington state.
"We've seen a lot of progress," said Kilbourn, marriage project director of the Washington-based gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.
Washington state's highest court is expected to decide soon on a challenge to a ban on same-sex marriage filed by eight gay couples denied marriage licenses.
Kilbourn said that challenge shared similarities with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's ground-breaking 2003 case that ended in a 4-3 decision to guarantee same-sex couples the constitutional right to wed.
New Jersey's Supreme Court is expected to rule early next year on a similar bid for gay marriage, and two cases are winding through New York's court system and will likely end up in the state's highest court next year.
A Maryland court is also hearing a gay marriage lawsuit.
Unlike in Vermont and Massachusetts, Connecticut's Democratic-controlled state legislature passed the law with relative ease and without pressure from the courts as opposed to trends emerging in the rest of the country.
NATION DEEPLY DIVIDED
Even if gay marriage or civil unions are legalized in other states, popular opinion is deeply divided on the issue.
In the past year, voters in 13 states approved constitutional amendments declaring their laws will only recognize marriage between a man and woman. Many Republicans and conservative Democrats back that idea.
Rep. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed this month to veto a bill to allow gay marriage in the state and said the issue should be decided by the courts or by voters directly.
And the fight continues in Massachusetts. Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and Christian groups scored a victory this month with the approval of a ballot initiative that could give voters a chance in 2008 to ban both same-sex marriage and unions.
Opponents to same-sex marriage expect similar fights in other states and say most Americans are on their side.
"It's clear that the people of the United States do not want same-sex marriage," said Peter Sprigg, vice president of policy at the conservative Family Research Council.
An ABC/Washington Post poll in January found that 41 percent of American adults thought gay marriage and civil unions should be legal and 55 percent did not.
But that poll also showed a conflicting view among people in the prime marrying ages of between 18 to 29 -- 55 percent of that group supported gay marriage and 42 percent did not.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not taken a case on gay marriage, leaving states to decide the issue, legal experts say its decision to preserve the right to same-sex sexual activity in the Lawrence vs. Texas case in 2003 could influence debate.
"That case definitely has implications for the marriage debate," said Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor who expects increasing numbers of gay marriage lawsuits.
"Now that we have a few states recognizing either gay marriage or civil unions, the people who get united or married in those cases are going to be asking for recognition in other states," she said.