State Legislatures Jump to Ban Gay Marriages

Recent efforts to legalize gay marriage (search) — in Massachusetts through court decisions and in San Francisco through the granting of marriage licenses — have lawmakers in other states rushing legislation designed to prevent gay unions from being recognized at home.

New Hampshire senators are meeting in committee Tuesday to discuss a ban on same sex unions. Georgia senators on Monday passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. It now goes to the state House for a vote.

Both states already have laws on the books declaring same-sex marriages illegal. But in New Hampshire, lawmakers want to make sure marriages contracted in other states are not recognized there.

"Let's decide what position New Hampshire wants to be in," said Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, the prime sponsor of the bill. Prescott said decisions in neighboring Vermont, where same-sex unions are legal, and Massachusetts, whose Supreme Judicial Court's (search) ruling effectively overturned the state's law banning gay marriage, led to the bill's creation.

In Georgia, supporters of the ban, which passed 40-14, the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment (search), said adding the ban language to the constitution will better protect the state from lawsuits or judges' rulings in other states.

"Based on what's happening all over the country right now, I think it's very likely we would see that," said Sen. Mike Crotts, R-Conyers, who sponsored the resolution that defines marriage as a union only between one man and one woman.

The concerns about other state actions comes as Massachusetts prepares to allow gay marriages. In November, the state's highest court ruled it unconstitutional to ban gay marriage and ordered the state to start allowing gay couples to marry.

Last week, the state Legislature held a joint session but failed to pass several proposed amendments to the constitution that would have ban gay marriages. Lawmakers meet again next month to try again, but even if they do pass the amendment, right now, the law allowing gay marriage is set to be enacted on May 17.

A constitutional amendment in Massachusetts would require 101 votes in the constitutional convention (search) — a joint session of the state House and Senate — this year, plus 101 votes again in next year's legislative session. Voters would then need to approve the amendment in 2006. That two-and-a-half-year period allows time for thousands of gay couples to marry before any ban is enacted.

In California, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (search) announced last week that the city would start granting marriage licenses to gay couples, in defiance of state law.

"It's a great act of civil disobedience," said Fox News legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano. "But if [Newsom] is trying to serve gay and lesbian couples, he is misserving them because those pieces of paper that he has are invalid. They are meaningless."

Since Newsom's announcement last week, more than 1,700 marriage licenses have been issued to same-sex couples. Hundreds of couples have already exchanged vows. Newsom himself officiated two weddings, one for his chief of staff and the other for his policy director.

Newsom's decision has touched off a furor among critics, who say he is directly and willfully violating the law. California voters approved a ballot initiative in 2000 that recognizes marriages as unions between men and women only. Several groups, including the Campaign for California Families (search), have challenged Newsom's decision in court, seeking an injunction.

Napolitano said that like Vermont's civil unions law, California does have a domestic partnership law that is barely distinguishable from marriage. But Newsom's classification of the unions as "marriages" goes beyond the boundaries of that law.

"His heart may be in the right place, but he doesn't make the law on marriages, the Legislature does," Napolitano said.

Napolitano said that the courts could decide to put an injunction on the marriage licenses. He added that even if the unions are invalidated, the mayor is unlikely to suffer any political fallout from voters.

"Nothing can be done to the mayor. The attorney general of California can sue the mayor for violating state law, and any citizen or taxpayer who lives in the city of San Francisco can sue the mayor for not enforcing the state law, for enforcing his own brand of law," he said, but trying to send Newsom to jail would make Newsom a hero, or "mayor for life" in San Francisco.

Despite the efforts being made in San Francisco and Massachusetts, lawmakers in other parts of the country say they are not ready to sanction gay marriage.

In New Hampshire, the law prohibits men from marrying men and women from marrying women, calling such unions void and incestuous, but it does not expressly invalidate same-sex marriages formed in other states or civil unions. The new law would forbid it.

"We felt we were squeezed in the middle," said Rep. Robert Letourneau, a bill sponsor. "We felt we needed to do that more clearly."

Letourneau said since the law in New Hampshire already bans gay marriage, the new bill will not be "taking anything away from anybody."

The New Hampshire Legislature has tried and failed before to pass a law closing the loophole on out-of-state gay weddings, but the House voted 238-128 in 2000 to reject the bill.

Prescott said lawmakers can no longer argue that the need for the law does not exist. That is the same argument put forth by Georgia's ban supporters. Crotts, who is running for the U.S. Congress this year, said the amendment won't ban marriage for gay people altogether.

"Those who are against this have the same right to marry as you or I do under the current law; they only need to find the right partner," Crotts said in a line that drew laughter and jeers from the Senate gallery.

If the amendment passes the Democratic-controlled House, it will be put before voters this November. But critics of the law say they will do whatever they can to make sure it doesn't get that far.

"We're going to do everything we can to stop it in the House," said Allen Thornell, director of Georgia Equality (search), the state's largest gay advocacy group.

Thornell and other critics say Senate Republicans are just trying to pander to conservative voters during an election year. They were curious why Republicans also didn't add to the amendment a Democratic-offered phrase that would have made "adultery by a married person" illegal. That failed in a tied 27-27 vote. Republicans hold a 32-24 majority in the Senate.

"This is a bald-faced attempt to put a hateful and divisive issue in front of us just before hitting the campaign trail," said Sen. Mary Squires, D-Norcross, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Zell Miller. "Passing a law twice does not make it twice as effective; this is a wedge." 

But social conservatives are expected to be out in force in November if the amendment reaches the ballot. 

"We believe it is the right thing to do and we sincerely appreciate the state senators standing up and being counted," said Sadie Fields, chairman of the Christian Coalition of Georgia. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.