WASHINGTON – While one group fights to strengthen the American family, others are trying to redefine it.

The Federal Marriage Amendment, which seeks to define marriage as between one man and one woman, was introduced in Congress in May with bipartisan backing and faced instant attacks from groups who billed it as anti-homosexual.

Now, as the amendment faces scrutiny in House judiciary hearings and as supporters fight for its introduction in the Senate, the battle of same-sex marriages is being fought in courts all over the United States in what one onlooker calls a “giant game of chess.”

Matt Daniels, executive director of Alliance for Marriage, the organization that proposed the amendment, said the homosexual movement is making headway faster than the pro-marriage side because the public isn't paying attention.

“Right now the gay movement is getting to move all the chess pieces around,” Daniels said. “By the time the American people sit down at the table, it'll be checkmate.”

‘A Man and a Woman’

The Federal Marriage Amendment aims to pre-empt this eventual checkmate by writing the definition of marriage into the Constitution.

The amendment reads: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.”

The idea for of such an amendment arose as states began entertaining the possibility of same-sex marriage. In the 1990s, courts in Hawaii and Alaska briefly legalized such unions and said the states must provide marriage licenses to homosexuals. But in 1998 those and other states, responding to public outcry, passed laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The real push for the Federal Marriage Amendment came after Vermont created a “civil union” status in 2000 that gives homosexual partners the same rights as married couples. More than 4,000 couples have entered into these unions, but less than 20% are actually residents of Vermont.

As the other 80% return home, many “become plaintiffs in lawsuits to force the destruction of marriage upon their home states,” Daniels explained.

The most closely watched state cases are New Jersey and Massachusetts, where homosexuals have sued for being denied marriage licenses.

In New Jersey, the Lambda Legal Foundation has sued the state on behalf of seven same-sex couples that want their unions recognized as eligible for marriage. The same is happening in Massachusetts, where a case in which a trial court denied marriage licenses to seven same-sex couples is under appeal. Daniels expects a verdict in early 2003, and he predicts a dire outcome.

“We're going to lose,” he said.

Prompted by this forecast, citizens in Massachusetts organized a campaign to add their own amendment to the state constitution.

Known as the Protection of Marriage Amendment, it defined marriage in the same way as the Federal Marriage Amendment. According to Massachusetts law, supporters needed to gather 130,000 signatures through petitions to bring it to a procedural vote in the legislature. Assuming that 50 of the 200 representatives affirmed it, the amendment would then need to be voted on once more during the next two years to be added as an initiative to the 2004 ballot. But the legislature adjourned July 31 without addressing the amendment, nullifying the work of supporters.

“It's effectively been killed,” said Dan Avila, associate director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which supported the amendment.

Avila said the definition of marriage is one that reflects both the majority viewpoint and the moral standard.

“It's survived since the beginning of time,” he said. “It shouldn't be changed now.”

But if the Massachusetts case legalizes same-sex marriage, the definition will indeed change, and Daniels said other states will follow suit.

“It will be a legal disaster for our side,” he said. “They will invoke the U.S. Constitution to force same-sex marriages in every state.”

However, there are rays of hope for marriage supporters. In January the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously agreed to uphold a ruling that a Vermont civil union is not the equivalent of marriage. The decision also upheld the Georgia Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as needing one man and one woman.

And in late July, the Connecticut Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that it could not dissolve a Vermont civil union because the relationship is not recognized by the state as a marriage.

Almost Too Late

Daniels compares the same-sex marriage issue to abortion, saying that much like the Roe v. Wade decision, the American public won't show outrage until it's almost too late.

“The main obstacle is one we've seen again and again,” he said. “The average Americans are not paying attention.”

But the amendment's opponents are. Immediately after its proposal in July 2001, pro-homosexual groups attacked it. The National Organization for Women said it would “move us further away from the ideal of basic respect for human rights and equality for all.” Wayne Beson of the Human Rights Campaign, a homosexual lobbying group, calls “hateful,” “mean-spirited” and “cruel.” The American Civil Liberties Union claimed it would “nullify civil rights protections based on marital status.”

The supporters of the Ammendment are diverse in religion, ethnicity and political persuasion – backers include Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and the Rev. Walter Fauntroy of the National Black Leadership Round Table, as well as members of the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland, the Islamic Society of North America and Agape African Methodist Episcopal Church. Yet the most common complaint is that it violates civil rights. Therefore, opponents say, fighting against it is akin to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Supporters discount this comparison.

“Evil is ugly, so it has to wear a mask, and the mask they have appropriated is that of the civil rights movement,” Daniels said.

Bishop George McKinney of the mostly black Church of God in Christ had harsher criticism. “It's an attempt to hijack the civil rights movement. There's no relationship,” he said. “To fight for the dignity of a person as a human is quite different from the fight for going to bed with another man or another woman.”

Dana Wind writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.