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Gay marriage ruling has '04 Democrats walking fine line

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(CNN) -- Tuesday's controversial ruling by the highest court in Massachusetts that gay men and lesbians can't be barred from the institution of marriage has lit the fuse on a political controversy likely to burn throughout the 2004 presidential elections.

Veteran Democratic politician Ray Flynn, the former mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton years, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports Tuesday that "this now has become a major political issue in the presidential election."

"I think the silent majority -- the people of this country -- will have the last voice on this whole matter," said Flynn, now president of a Catholic group that opposes same-sex marriage.

And in Flynn's reaction lies the dilemma for the nine Democrats seeking their party's nomination: How do they support civil rights for gay men and lesbians -- an important source of votes and money in Democratic primaries -- without alienating the majority of Americans who oppose gay marriage, including many Southern and Catholic voters?

The answer seems to lie in nuance.

"Although I am opposed to gay marriage, I have also long believed that states have the right to adopt for themselves laws that allow same-sex unions," said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, in his statement responding to the ruling.

"While I continue to oppose gay marriage, I believe today's decision calls on the Massachusetts state legislature to take action to ensure equal protection for gay couples," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in his response.

"I do not support gay marriage, but I hope the Massachusetts state legislature will act in a manner that is consistent with today's Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling," said Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, whose daughter is a lesbian.

Indeed, of the nine candidates running for the Democratic nomination, six say they do not support gay marriage -- Lieberman, Kerry, Gephardt, retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and the front-runner, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont.

Only three are on record supporting full marriage rights for same-sex couples -- Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York and former Sen. Carole Moseley Braun of Illinois. All three are considered long shots for the nomination.

But five of the six candidates who say they are opposed to gay marriage told the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, that they would support civil unions -- which allow same-sex couples to obtain many of the rights and benefits of marriage without actually using the "m" word.

"As president, I would support giving gays and lesbians the legal rights that married couples get," Clark said in his reaction to Tuesday's ruling.

"One way or another, the state should afford same-sex couples equal treatment under law in areas such as health insurance, hospital visitation and inheritance rights," Dean said in his response.

Dean signed the nation's only civil unions law when he was Vermont's governor.

Edwards, whose views on civil unions weren't included in the HRC's candidate survey, also did not directly address the issue in his comments on the Tuesday ruling. However, he said he believes "gay and lesbian Americans are entitled to equal respect and dignity under our laws."

Conservative religious groups, joined by some Republican members of Congress, are pushing for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Such a ban would trump court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage and would prevent state legislatures from adopting laws legalizing marriage or possibly recognizing civil unions.

But on this proposal, the Democratic field is united in their opposition, with most candidates saying these decisions should be left to states.

"I recognize that different states will address this in different ways, and I will oppose any effort to pass an amendment to the United States Constitution in response to the Massachusetts decision," Edwards said.

"I will oppose any attempts by the right wing to change the Constitution in response to today's ruling, which would be unnecessary and divisive," Lieberman said.

"It is my hope that we don't get side-tracked by the right wing into a debate over a phony constitutional amendment, " Gephardt said. "I strongly oppose such an effort as purely political and unnecessarily divisive at the expense of those who already suffer from discrimination."

Such an amendment would have to be approved by two-thirds of each house of Congress and by the legislatures of 38 states. If Democrats in Congress stand as united in opposition as their 2004 presidential candidates, they have more than enough votes to block it.

President Bush, who also opposes same-sex marriage, has not indicated whether he would support such an amendment. But after Tuesday's ruling, he issued a statement saying he would "work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage."

Republican leaders are likely to come under pressure from religious conservatives in their base to take action on the amendment.

In response to Tuesday's ruling, Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, said, "We must amend the Constitution if we are to stop a tyrannical judiciary from redefining marriage to the point of extinction."

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