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NEWS FROM CNN

Panel Sounds Off on Gay Marriage

Aired November 18, 2003 - 12:13   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL COSTELLO, ANCHOR: As we've been telling you today, the Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled there is nothing constitutional standing in the way of gay marriage.
And although this decision sounds final, it is not.

You're taking a look live at a picture of one of the couples who filed suit to get married in Massachusetts.

Joining us to talk about it here, though, Elizabeth Birch with the Human Rights Campaign and Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute.

Welcome to you both.

ELIZABETH BIRCH, HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN: Hello.

ROBERT KNIGHT, DIRECTOR, CULTURE AND FAMILY INSTITUTE: Hello.

COSTELLO: Elizabeth, let's start with you. It's not quite a victory for those who are for same-sex marriage. Is it?

BIRCH: You know, it's much more of a victory than has been reported this morning.

A real close reading of the case shows that the Massachusetts Supreme Court really does mean marriage. They don't mean civil unions; they don't mean domestic partner coverage. They really mean for the legislature to alter the Massachusetts statute so that it includes gay couples.

And ultimately, they will conclude that it is not constitutional until that statute does include gay couples. So you know, this is much more akin to Canada and its ruling in Ontario, Canada, specifically, than it is to Vermont.

COSTELLO: Robert, what's your take on this?

KNIGHT: Well, it's similar to Vermont in the sense that you have a court telling a legislature what to do. They have no business doing that. They can offer opinions; they can rule in specific cases; they can't tell a legislature what to do. We have a separation of powers, even in Massachusetts.

What the legislature ought to do in Massachusetts, the home of liberty, the home of Concord where the first shot was fired against the tyranny of George, King George, is to turn around and pass a constitutional amendment affirming that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. That would be the proper response for that legislature.

COSTELLO: Well, Elizabeth, the governor of Massachusetts has already come out against this ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. What do you think is going to happen?

BIRCH: I think here is what is going to happen.

The Supreme Court is playing its absolutely proper role. It is determining whether a statute is constitutional or not. And this ruling is very simple. It's saying that citizens of Massachusetts should be treated equally.

The governor will likely veto anything that the legislature does to conform its statute to what the Supreme Court has asked for. And anything that goes up other than allowing gay people to marry in the state of Massachusetts, I believe, will be found unconstitutional by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

COSTELLO: Robert, what will groups like yours do now?

KNIGHT: Well, we'll point out there is nothing in the Massachusetts constitution that says marriage is unconstitutional. This is an absurd ruling made up from whole cloth. I mean, it's another example of judicial tyranny.

You've got a judge in Colorado telling a mother she can't share her Christian faith with her daughter and show her materials from Focus on the Family and Promise Keepers. Because the homosexual movement is saying you will agree with us or we'll use the power of the law to shut down your point of view.

This is about bringing the law into it, which means everybody is brought into it. And it's one thing for Elizabeth and her partner or whoever is in Massachusetts to declare themselves married, have their own ceremonies.

But when the state says, "All right, now we're all citizens, we must recognize this as a marriage, even though you know in your heart of hearts marriage should be a man and a woman, even though we know that this will cause legal problems for business people who don't want to subsidize homosexuality because their faith tells them it's wrong, we're setting up a system here that will end up in tyranny against people who believe in traditional marriage."

COSTELLO: Well, Robert, having said that, I want to read an e- mail from one of our viewers. This is from Shamil in Maryland.

"Saying that straight couples can get married but gay couples cannot is like saying men can vote but women cannot. The rights of Americans cannot be limited based on race, religion, gender, or in this case sexual orientation. Just because someone might offend your morals doesn't mean they are any less deserving of equality."

And that is sort of what the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled, Robert.

BIRCH: That's right.

COSTELLO: They took religion and morality out of this decision and said it was a constitutional issue.

KNIGHT: You're right. They have taken morality and religion out, because they've trashed it.

If you say that just the union of a man and woman being married, the understanding for thousands of years is now a form of bigotry, it shows how extreme this court ruling is.

BIRCH: Wait a minute. That's not...

KNIGHT: That's where we're coming down to.

COSTELLO: Elizabeth -- Let Elizabeth get a word in. Elizabeth, go ahead.

KNIGHT: That's exactly what it is.

BIRCH: Yes. Let me just clarify for your viewers. This ruling has nothing at all to do with what a church or a synagogue or a temple can do in terms of marrying people according to their faith.

KNIGHT: Wait a minute.

BIRCH: This is a simple civil -- civil -- ruling. This has to do with what rights and protections will be extended to loving, long- term tax-paying couples that happen to be gay, and allow for great societal protection for those couples and their children.

So this is equality from the very heart of equality and freedom. The state of Massachusetts living out its promise to all American citizens.

COSTELLO: And Robert, I must ask you this. Where in the federal Constitution does it say marriage is between a man and a woman?

KNIGHT: Well, it...

BIRCH: It doesn't.

KNIGHT: It says in federal law, but not in the Constitution. It doesn't say it in the Massachusetts constitution either. But what it does say is that these laws are left up to the people to decide, not a bunch of judges.

And there are only four out of the seven-member court who decided this. The dissent in this case is huge. It starts on page 18 of a 50-page ruling. There was great discussion as to whether the court should go this far and usurp the people's right, through their legislators, to determine what marriage is.

BIRCH: If I could just make one point...

COSTELLO: Before you do, Elizabeth, I want to go to the phone lines...

BIRCH: OK.

COSTELLO: ... because I want to get our viewers' calls in.

This is Lynn from Michigan. Go for it, Lynn.

CALLER: I just wanted to say that I thought that this is morally wrong and that I think it really sets a bad example for our children.

COSTELLO: Elizabeth?

KNIGHT: I have to agree.

BIRCH: If I could respond to that. I think that Robert Knight would be saying something different if a court was ruling that religious freedom in our country is very, very sacred and that's what courts do.

There is a separation between church and state, and the right of religious freedom is upheld in our country, and it should be. What the Massachusetts court is talking about is a civil license that will bring more protections to gay couples and their families, and all of that is good for society.

COSTELLO: But Elizabeth...

KNIGHT: ... religious mandate and a subsidy -- Go ahead. I'm sorry.

COSTELLO: ... isn't there some compromise in this? What's wrong with civil unions, Elizabeth?

BIRCH: Well, the fact is that civil unions, what the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled, is that it's separate but equal, in essence, and it doesn't work.

The couples who -- gay couples in Vermont have no access to any of the federal benefits, which are administered based on marriage laws, the marriage licensing laws.

For example, couples in Vermont who are gay, who have had a civil union, have no access to federal inheritance laws. They can't file joint tax returns at the federal level to take the burden and the benefit of those tax laws. They don't have, for example, family leave, medical protection leave, any of the issues around pensions and ERISA and COBRA. And it gets very technical.

COSTELLO: Elizabeth, let me interrupt you for just a second. Senator Bill Frist just commented on this. Now we want to play a tape of what he said just moments ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: Let me just add on that, because it's an issue that we'll address and continue to talk about.

But remember that this body, the United States Senate and the Congress, with 85 votes, did pass the Defense of Marriage Act. And in essence, that said that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

So it is an issue, as we watch what's happening with the courts, that in some shape or form, we'll be addressing here in the United States Senate.

And all options are on the table. I think when we last publicly were discussing this, we made it very clear that it is our obligation. It is the law of the land, passed by this body. And if the courts begin to tear that down, we have a responsibility to address it and all options are, indeed, on the table.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: And Robert, maybe you can answer this question for us. Does this trump state rights, what Senator Frist was talking about?

KNIGHT: Well, states' rights are one thing. But you know, we solved the slavery problem in a federal way. So states don't have an infinite capacity to do anything they want.

If a state decides to violate natural law, and in this case drive civilization off a cliff by radically redefining marriage, I think the federal government has every right to come in and say, "No, you can't go that far." This is just as important as slavery, preserving the fundamental institution of society.

The only reason we have marriage in the law at all, the only reason we address it is because it's the indispensable institution we can't do without. It's where children are created and born and best raised. And that's why it's privileged.

When you extend it to other relationships, you create counterfeits. You encourage people to live outside real marriage, and you do harm children in the long run.

COSTELLO: Elizabeth, is it as important an issue as slavery, Elizabeth?

BIRCH: No. And that was very interesting twist there.

The fact is that the absolute reprehensible institution of slavery was solved at the federal level. And there are times when the federal government should step in, as courts should, when there is injustice and inequality.

I would never compare anything in American history to slavery. But the fact is that...

COSTELLO: All right. Let's stop there. Let's stop there for just a second. We're going to have to take a break. We're going to take more of your phone calls with Elizabeth Birch and Robert Knight. You can call us at 1-800-CNN-1896, or e-mail us at Wolf@CNN.com.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: We want to get back to our debate about the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. It rule there's nothing constitutional standing in the way of gay marriage, but it turned the issue, really, over to the state legislature, which has 180 days to react to this.

Elizabeth Birch with the Human Rights Campaign and Robert Knight with us this afternoon.

I wanted to talk about how this issue has become a political hot potato. Robert, how much do you think it will play into presidential politics now?

KNIGHT: I think it will be a front and center issue in 2004, because nothing less than the fundamental institution of society is in question here.

And I think the -- I've heard activists like Elizabeth say, "Well, you know, you shouldn't really take this up as a national issue, because that would be the wrong thing to do."

If the Human Rights Campaign doesn't want the Republican Party in particular to take this issue up, that shows it's a very powerful weapon in the hands of people who would use it to reiterate what they stand for.

I think the Republican Party, in particular, and conservative Democrats, have a tremendous opportunity to say, "Look, I'm for marriage. I think it's eternal. It's God ordained. We shouldn't mess with it. That's where I stand." And I think that will resonate with the American people.

COSTELLO: And Robert, I want to mention you're the director of the Culture and Family Institute. I didn't want to leave that out.

Elizabeth, do you think...

KNIGHT: That's an affiliate of Concerned Women for America.

COSTELLO: Thank you very much.

Elizabeth, do you think this issue belongs on a national stage?

BIRCH: Well, I think that the American people don't care about it that much. They are far more focused on a very uncertain economy, one that is showing a little promise, but they're unclear in the long run. We've lost almost three million jobs, especially manufacturing jobs. The war in Iraq is plaguing us.

I think there is a lot on our plate as a nation. And I think most Americans, whether they're for or against same-sex couples being able to get a civil marriage license, they think this is not something the Congress should be focused on.

COSTELLO: And Robert, you know, on that note, it seems that the gay lifestyle is becoming more and more accepted. We have television shows featuring gay actors. Very popular with the viewing audience.

Are our attitudes changing? And do you agree, in small part, with Elizabeth?

KNIGHT: I think the attitudes have changed over the last couple decades with kind of nonstop propaganda on prime time television, in schools, all over the place, Hollywood movies.

But a poll by CNN, as a matter of fact, in end of summer showed a halt in that trend. It said people really are saying, "Look, we've had it in our faces long enough. We're tolerant. We don't care what the folks are doing down the street. But would you please keep it out of our faces and out of our children's faces?"

As the gay rights movement advances, that's becoming more and more difficult to avoid.

COSTELLO: I want to read an e-mail.

KNIGHT: It's not just gay marriage. It's what they're teaching kids in schools. They're telling them it's OK. It's healthy. It's normal. Go ahead. The American people are starting to realize that there's a lot more behind this movement than meets the eye.

COSTELLO: OK. I'm going to read an e-mail from an American, Andrew from Miami.

"Once opposition groups realize that being gay is genetic and not a choice, they will stop worrying about their children being converted to a so-called gay lifestyle and this entire issue will go away."

Is it as simple as that, Elizabeth?

BIRCH: Well, I do think that the research is not definitive, but it does seem to point in the direction of -- the National Institute of Health and other studies -- that it is genetic.

I think it's genetic. I feel like, you know, I've been gay my whole life. But I think it's a complex issue that science and biology will sort out.

I just want to address politics for a moment. I think that this is a very hot potato issue for...

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