WASHINGTON

Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series investigating the issues currently surrounding marriage in America.

Cathy Renna is getting married next week. Like other brides, she's taking off time from work for an extended honeymoon away from cell phones, e-mail and any contact with the outside world.

But unlike other brides, Renna's marriage won't be licensed by city hall or sanctioned in church — she is taking vows with her longtime girlfriend.

"We're obviously not getting married in the legal sense," said Renna, spokeswoman for Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (search), one of the largest gay and lesbian rights organizations in the country.

GLAAD is among a handful of organizations seeking to secure the right of all gay and lesbian couples to marry. Renna said the fight is not about getting a religious blessing, but civil recognition of the union, including all the legal benefits and protections afforded to heterosexual married couples by local, state and federal governments.

"What we are finding is people are making that distinction ... between the religious ritual and the civil protection that a couple gets when they legally marry," she said. "I think wherever people stand on gay marriage, they are against discrimination."

Being recognized as the next of kin, sharing employer health insurance, visiting a partner during an emergency hospital stay, having a say in hospital care, being able to pass along Social Security and pension benefits after death  — these are among the more than 1,000 benefits that gay rights groups say heterosexual married couples take for granted but same-sex partners are denied.

"These are shared values, these are things that everyone understands," said Mark Shields, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign (search).

Opponents say they do understand, but don't buy it. The anti-discrimination argument is a canard to force all Americans to recognize gay marriage on the same social and moral plane as the centuries-old union between men and women, and that's never going to happen.

"This is a social weapon of mass destruction," said Rev. Lou Sheldon, director of the Traditional Values Coalition (search), whose predominant mission is to pursue an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman only. Already 37 states have passed similar amendments to their constitutions and are fighting efforts to give gay and lesbian couples the same rights as heterosexual pairs.

"It would destroy civilization as we know it," Sheldon said.

"The radical gay activists have to overcome two things — public opinion and the democratic process. They only way they can do this is to manufacture a constitutional right," said Matt Daniels, spokesman for the Marriage Alliance (search), which is also seeking an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to prevent gay marriage.

"We did not come to a federal marriage amendment as a vehicle for anything but a last resort," he said.

Based on the 2000 census, an estimated 594,691 same-sex unmarried households exist in the United States. Further surveys by pro-gay groups suggest that is a conservative number.

A Gallup Poll conducted in late October found that 64 percent of registered voters over the age of 30 think that homosexual marriage, with rights afforded to traditional married couples, should not be recognized. The poll found 32 percent said it should.

But a Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll in September showed 46 percent of respondents would support civil unions as opposed to 44 percent who would not.

Gary Gates, a demographer with the Urban Institute (search), said that as tolerance grows for same-sex unions, he expects the numbers of gay households to increase and the relationships themselves to be strengthened by public confidence in them.

"As policies and attitudes improve around acceptance of same-sex couples, you will have the likelihood of more people coupling and longer relationships," he said.

So far, Vermont is the only state to have granted civil union status for gay and lesbian couples. While gay couples get no federal benefits and their unions are not recognized beyond state lines, they are afforded the same state protections and benefits heterosexual married couples get.

To date, 10 state governments and 161 local municipalities extend some degree of benefits to employees' partners regardless of the type of relationship, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Several other states are in the midst of deciding whether to recognize same-sex unions as legally-protected entities.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday that the state cannot deny marriage of same-sex partners, in effect making Massachusetts the first state in the union to permit gay marriage. Earlier this month, a New Jersey state Superior Court dismissed a lawsuit by seven homosexual couples seeking the right to marry. The couples are considering an appeal.

The fronts in this fight are not only in the courtroom and the statehouses. Currently, 202 Fortune 500 companies extend benefits to domestic partners of their employees, as do 5,275 smaller companies and non-profit organizations.

Hundreds of churches, church councils and dioceses are currently performing same-sex marriage ceremonies. On the flip side, the U.S. Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops (search) passed an edict last week disapproving same-sex marriages and civil unions.

"The union of a man and a woman is sacred and it is from them that the procreation of children comes about," said Bob Laird, director of the Office for Family Life at the Arlington, Va., diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. "That makes it a societal issue. You need children to continue the society. And a lot of people say if marriage goes, so goes the society."

An Adoption Institute (search) study released Oct. 29 shows 60 percent of public and private adoption agencies in the United States accept applications from homosexuals, and about 40 percent of those agencies have already placed a child with a homosexual couple.

Twenty-seven states allow gay individuals to adopt, and eight states — California, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont — guarantee joint adoption. That gives both parents legal rights over the child and gives the child the opportunity to receive inheritances and other benefits from both parents.

Mississippi bans adoption by gay couples and Utah forbids adoption by any unmarried couple. Florida bans adoption by any gay person, but the law is currently being challenged in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a ruling is due at any time.