As head of the statewide Diocese of Honolulu, Hawaii, Bishop Francis DiLorenzo is at ground zero of the national debate brewing over same-sex marriage rites for homosexual couples. But while the mainland debate reflects the in-your-face, aggressive stance of the American gay and lesbian rights movement, there is far less rancor in the state that may become the first to legalize such unions.

“There's a Hawaii intensity and a mainland intensity,” Bishop DiLorenzo, who took charge of the diocese three years ago, told the Register during the U.S. bishops recent meeting in Portland, Ore. The Polynesian and Asian influences that contribute to Hawaii's laid-back way contrast sharply contrast with the swirling debate over gay marriage in continental America, he said. “The drama exists more on the mainland than it does in Hawaii.”

In August, a Hawaiian court panel of five judges will hear arguments for and against same sex marriage. Supporters say the state cannot block access to such a civil procedure. Approval of such marriages by three of the five judges will mean all other states will have to recognize Hawaiian marriages under the Constitution's full faith and credit law, in which states honor each others’ laws.

Presumed Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, President Clinton and possible Reform Party candidate Richard Lamm, the ex-governor of Colorado, all oppose same-sex marriage, saying they believe the traditional union should be reserved to one man and one woman. That view is part of a proposed, Church-backed amendment to the Hawaiian constitution.

“That's the value we're trying to uphold in the debate,” said Bishop DiLorenzo. While Honolulu's two major daily newspapers’ have backed same-sex marriage in editorials, polls by those same two papers found that 74 percent of Hawaiians oppose such unions.

“With marriage already under fire today, I think we can ill afford another social experiment,” said the Bishop DiLorenzo, who's view was widely supported by his fellow bishops at the Portland meeting. “It dramatically puts a new burden on an overburdened institution called marriage.”

Bishop Daniel Walsh of the Diocese of Las Vegas, Nev., described marriage as “an institution given to us by God. It's not an institution given by man or by government or by society.”

“The issue is—what is marriage? What's the state's interest in marriage?” said Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.

Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., said that while Church teaching and opposition to same-sex marriage is clear, “theologians are going to have to explore this, and I have no idea what possibilities exist.”

For the 106,000 Catholics of West Virginia, same-sex marriage is a non-issue, according to Bishop Bernard Schmitt of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. “West Virginia's just not into that at all. They think that's just ridiculous,” he said. “I'm not saying you wouldn't find a few in favor it. But it would be powerfully few.”

—David Finnigan