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The Real Impact Of Gay Marriage On Society

Legalized gay marriage (search) may never cause the transformation of society that some have predicted, given that it is likely to affect less than one in 100 U.S. married couples in the United States today. But culture warriors say the small numbers aren't reason to ignore the issue.

“While I don’t think, just because this is a small group of people, that it is not worthy of the attention in the public discourse it’s getting," said Gary Gates, a researcher with the Urban Institute (search) in Washington D.C., "the reality is the impact on marriage numerically is that gay couples will still make up a tiny fraction of married couples.”

Analysts use the 2000 Census (search) to derive an official count of the number of possible gay unions in the United States -- 595,000 households headed by same-sex partners. Others say that figure may be a conservative one given that many such couples aren’t particularly open about their relationships.

But while the ratio is minuscule compared to the number of heterosexual married couples – about 56.4 million according to the 2000 census – analysts are torn over the impact legalized gay marriage will have on the way Americans view the institution and the way they look at homosexuality.

Maggie Gallagher, co-author of “The Case for Marriage,” recently testified in front of the Senate that gay marriage activists are misrepresenting the impact gay marriage will have.

“Is this a small add-on that will only affect a small number of children living with same-sex couples? Or will changing the legal definition of marriage change the way marriage will mean to everyone?” she asked. “I think the same-sex marriage advocates are not being clear or honest about what a big change this will be. We are all going to have to be re-educated.”

Gallagher claims that with the legal onset of gay marriage, governments will be in the position of forcing onto citizens a belief system that equates homosexuality with heterosexuality — through public schools, taxpayer-funded programs like charities and non-profits, workplaces and even faith-based organizations (search) that receive public dollars.

“It will be a new legal and social norm and the law is going to enforce this new social and legal norm on people,” she said.

So far, Massachusetts is the only state considering legal gay marriage. Its Supreme Judicial Court (search) ruled it unconstitutional for the state to deny marriage licenses to gay couples. The Legislature there is now debating whether to change its constitution to ban such marriages but the licenses are already being distributed and a constitutional amendment would not be ratified before the May date the court set for allowing gay marriages.

Mayors in California and New York have defied their state laws and begun marrying gay couples.  Federal lawmakers are debating whether to try to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman and protect states from having to recognize gay couples married in states that allow gay marriage.

There is a debate over whether the issue will land in the lap of the U.S. Supreme Court, and if so, whether the high court will insist that states recognize marriage laws in other states.

Jonathan Rauch, a writer for the National Journal (search) and author of the upcoming “Gay Marriage: Why it’s Good for Gays, Good for Straights and Good for America,” said he doesn’t think a constitutional amendment is coming, and believes that over the long-term, states will expand marriage rights to homosexuals and the number of hold-outs will dwindle.

“My personal view is gay marriage will have a significantly positive effect on gay people, non-gay people and on marriage,” he said. “For gay couples, it will bring the stability and healthiness and happiness that marriage uniquely provides. For straight people it will bring all of the benefits of social stability that goes with marriage.”

Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow with the Hoover Institute (search) at Stanford University, couldn’t disagree more. He said the state of marriage in American society is already undermined by high cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth rates.

Gay marriage, he said, will reinforce the idea that traditional marriages formed for the purpose of having children and providing a healthy mother-father environment is out, and alternative partnerships are in. He points to a decade of legalized gay unions in Scandinavia, where marriage rates have declined as the number of babies born to cohabitating has risen.

“The idea of marriage is outdated,” he said. “Parents lost the sense that marriage was about being a parent.”

Kurtz said he does not anticipate a future “patchwork” of state laws in which some will be gay marriage-friendly while others will not recognize the unions. Either a uniform definition of marriage between a man and a woman will be affirmed or not. In the case of the latter, he warned, “We will eventually turn into Scandinavia.”

Rauch balked at this idea, pointing out that the nations of Scandinavia do not recognize gay marriage, just civil partnerships. He said Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland do not encourage marriage at all, which has contributed to the institution’s decline. That is why the argument for gay marriage works — it will encourage marriage and hold it up as a “gold standard for stable relationships.”

“I think Kurtz’s argument is exhibit A for why conservatives should insist on gay marriage and not a substitute,” he said. “What I think is irrational is the notion that [gay marriage] will surely fail and all the effects will be negative so we shouldn’t try it at all.”