Who may marry?

Missourians join the national debate about same-sex marriage.
Sunday, February 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:46 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

For Rep. Larry Morris, a Republican from Springfield, homosexuality was never discussed while growing up in a Baptist setting. It was considered something sinful, a way of life he still believes is wrong.

For Melissa Stevens, a 25-year-old medicine student from Springfield and also a Baptist, homosexuality was something she battled most of her life. At first she thought it was sinful, but has now embraced it as a part of her identity.

Both Morris and Stevens stand on opposite sides of what has become a divisive national debate that runs deep into America’s sense of morality and might revolutionize the concept of marriage.

Morris is a staunch supporter of five bills introduced this January in the General Assembly that would ban same-sex marriages in Missouri. One of the bills is scheduled for debate on the Senate floor as early as this week.

The bills seek to amend the state constitution to reaffirm the definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Legislative approval of any of the bills will put the issue to a statewide vote in November.

Missouri already has a law that forbids same-sex unions, stating that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. A constitutional amendment would assure that the ban on same-sex marriages couldn’t be challenged in court. Currently, 37 other states have laws that forbid same-sex marriages.

Morris, a psychologist and counselor, said he has seen a number of cases of sexual deviancy, such as bestiality and pedophilia, during his years of practice. He said these activities flourish when people go beyond the bounds of what is “legally permissible.”

He said states should be able to restrain people who try to go beyond those bounds.

Legalizing gay marriage, he believes, might lead to the legalization of practices such as polygamy and incest.

“Same-sex marriage is not in accord with the principles that we have traditionally held and taught for 2,000 years,” said Morris, who is married and has four children. “It opens the doors for some things that I recoil with in horror.”

Stevens, who attends college in Columbia, is planning to marry her yearlong partner, Erica Hutcherson, in June in Vancouver, Canada. She knows her marriage will not be recognized in Missouri, but she said having a sense of legality is important.

Like Stevens and Hutcherson, other gay and lesbian couples and organizations are hoping for states to recognize same-sex marriage and give them the same benefits of heterosexual couples.

“We want to have a family, have children,” Hutcherson said while glancing at Stevens and caressing her hand. “I have the same dreams that everybody else has.”

Hutcherson, of Atlanta, Mo., and Stevens first met for a cup of coffee after a brief e-mail exchange on a lesbian Web page.

“I thought I sounded like a big dork,” said Hutcherson, a 35-year-old physical therapist, recalling how nervous she was when they first met.

Eight months later, Hutcherson was on her knees singing “Marry Me” by Amanda Marshall and presenting Stevens with a box that held a ring.

Hutcherson proposed in a gay bar, she said, because she didn’t want to make a scene in a restaurant or another bar where people may not understand.

The bills for a constitutional amendment filed in Missouri and elsewhere follow a November decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to allow same-sex marriages in that state beginning in May. In response, legislation was proposed in Massachusetts to allow same-sex civil unions instead of marriages. On Feb. 4, that state’s high court reaffirmed its earlier decision.

Marc Perlin, associate dean of the Suffolk University Law School in Boston, said the Massachusetts’ ruling could encourage challenges in other states to laws that forbid same-sex marriages. That’s the reason, he said, why legislators in many states are moving to amend their constitutions to reinforce existing laws against gay marriage.

Emboldened by the Massachusetts’ ruling, gay couples around the country have been approaching their county clerks about being issued marriage licenses. On Thursday, San Francisco became the first city in the country to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In issuing the licenses, the city is defying state law. Since Thursday, more than 665 same-sex couples have wed in San Francisco, according to Associated Press reports.

Thirteen states have introduced legislation to amend their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage and not recognize gay couples married in another state or country that allows such marriages.

“To me this was all about a legal and financial issue,” said Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, who sponsored a same-sex marriage bill that was signed into law by the Ohio governor on Feb. 6.

Seitz said that if a state allows same-sex couples to get married, it would have to expand its marital benefits to a new group of people, creating additional costs.

Seitz’s bill, considered by gay advocates to be the nation’s most restrictive measure against same-sex marriage, denies health, pension and other benefits to domestic partners — whether homosexual or not — of certain public employees.

Same-sex couples also cite legal and financial issues in making the case for having the same marriage rights — and benefits — as heterosexuals.

Heather Sheridan and Kiesa Heckmann of Marshall traveled to Canada on Thursday with plans to get married on Valentine’s Day. Sheridan, a 29-year-old college student and mother of two, said they decided to get married after Heckmann was not allowed to visit her at a hospital in Overland Park, Kan., as she recovered from a three-hour surgery in December.

“It’s not right,” Sheridan said. “Discrimination against gay or lesbian couples is just like discrimination because of race and nationality.”

While Missouri will not recognize their marriage, Sheridan said she is confident that when her children grow older they will look back at the current ban as some now look at past laws that prohibited blacks and whites to get married. Both have already contacted an attorney to extend their domestic partner benefits, which include the right to make medical decisions for their partner and joint ownership of property. They would have to pay more than $3,500 and fill out numerous documents to have some of the same benefits and rights as their next-door neighbors, a straight couple that paid $75 for their marriage license.

There is also action at the federal level to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriages.

The “alliance for marriage” amendment proposed by U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a Colorado Republican, has gathered more than 101 co-sponsors and is expecting support from President Bush, said Guy Short, Musgrave’s chief of staff.

“To amend the federal and state constitutions to define and discriminate against a particular group of people is not what constitutions are design to be used for,” said Seth Kilbourn, the national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay advocacy group. “The elected officials who are pushing this are misusing and abusing the role of constitutions in our state and federal government.”

The proposals

There are four proposals in the Missouri House and one in the Senate to amend the state Constitution and limit legal marriages to a man and a woman. House Joint Resolutions 39, 42 and 47 are identical and read:

“This proposed constitutional amendment establishes that marriage in this state will consist only of the union between a man and a woman, and no license to marry will be issued except to a man and a woman. Marriage between persons of the same sex, and full faith and credit of that marital status entered into in another state, will not be recognized as marriage in Missouri.”

House Joint Resolution 38 contains the same language but does not include the clause about marital status in another state.

Senate Joint Resolution 29 reads:

“That to be valid and recognized in this state, a marriage shall exist only between a man and a woman.”

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