NEW YORK – Gay marriage has stirred up a passionate whirlwind of moral convictions, religious beliefs and politics, sweeping the divisive question onto the desks of state attorneys general, the top law enforcers in each state.
As the issues flare up in New York, California, New Mexico and Oregon attorneys general are coming down, gingerly at times, against attempts to marry people of the same sex.
The law, they've said so far, is the law, and doesn't allow gay marriages.
Some of the attorneys general have ruled reluctantly, pointing out they disagree with current law. Others have been swift.
"I wrestled with it for about an hour," said New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid (search). "The law itself precludes it." She ordered a county clerk to stop issuing marriage licenses to couples of the same sex.
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (search), widely viewed as a likely candidate for governor, said the law is clear and same-sex marriages break it — though his heart is with those on the other side.
"I personally would like to see the law changed, but must respect the law as it now stands," Spitzer said this week. He said the local district attorney has the authority to prosecute.
The decisions so far — all by Democrats — are just one step amid pending court decisions, ongoing attempts in several states to amend their constitutions to ban gay marriages, and President Bush's effort to write a ban into the U.S. Constitution.
While the legal machinery grinds on, so do the marriages and the debate.
One hundred couples or more lined up around Oregon's Multnomah County (search) office building Thursday morning, hoping for official recognition of their love. A group of pastors and conservative lawmakers plan to go to court or maybe a ballot initiative to defend marriage as that between a man and a woman.
"You don't change 4,000 years of tradition," said Kelly Clark, the group's lawyer.
Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers was still weighing his opinion Thursday, analyzing state laws and the state Constitution. Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski has said state law clearly suggests marriage is a union between men and women.
"Our opinion isn't the final word on the matter," Myers said. "It ultimately has to be resolved by the courts ... as part of progressing toward determining what the people of a certain state want the law to be."
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer determined that such marriages break state law and has asked the state Supreme Court to invalidate same-sex marriages performed in San Francisco. But his own view, he said, is close to Spitzer's.
"What I hope will be helpful is to indicate that there is an equal protection claim that's at least partially valid. And that same-sex couples should enjoy all the rights and responsibilities of heterosexual couples," Lockyer said.
"However, I think there is a legitimate legal basis for calling that civil union or domestic partner," he said. "In our state, it's an argument about the word marriage."
The issue has been brewing for years, with Vermont passing a law in 2000 to grant civil unions. But the Massachusetts' top court ruling this year ordering same-sex marriages sparked a rush of attention.
San Francisco's mayor began issuing marriage licenses; so did the mayor in upstate New Paltz, N.Y., as well as officials in Oregon's Multnomah County and a clerk in New Mexico's Sandoval County.
South Carolina's Republican Attorney General Henry McMasters questioned how any public official could knowingly break the law they swore to uphold, even if they disagreed with it.
"You can't have every elected official ... in this country saying this law or that law violates the Constitution, therefore they're not going to pay attention to it. That'd be anarchy," he said.
Some attorneys general see anarchy; some see civil disobedience; others see politics.
"This is nothing but an election year issue. The cultural wedge issue of the year," said New Mexico's Madrid, who noted that the clerk who granted licenses is Republican. She is now looking at the "most appropriate way" to invalidate the 26 licenses granted.
In California, however, the push for gay marriage clearly comes from the left side of the political spectrum, as well as criticism from the right, Lockyer said.
"It kind of goes with this job," he said. "When you're in the middle of the road you get hit with traffic going both directions."