Do You, Tom, Take Harry. . .

Ninia Baehr has concocted elaborate plans for the wedding of her dreams. Why not? She's 35 and "crazy in love." She will rent a fabulous estate outside Honolulu and string lights in the trees. The reception will be a traditional Hawaiian luau. Breaking tradition, Baehr will wear a slinky black evening gown dotted with sequins.

There is, however, another tradition waiting to be broken in this fantasy wedding. The person Baehr wants to marry is another woman, Genora Dancel, her lover since 1990. But instead of just having some sort of ceremony and the grand party, the couple wants something else: a marriage license from the state. Baehr and Dancel, along with two other gay couples, first applied five years ago. After a fight that has already gone to the Hawaii Supreme Court-which made a finding in Baehr's favor, but sent the issue back to a lower court--legal experts say she may actually get her wish within the next two years.

Much more than Baehr's happiness is at stake here, though. No other state recognizes homosexual marriages, and opinion polls show that nearly 65 percent of Americans oppose the idea. But states usually recognize legal marriages performed in another jurisdiction, so if Hawaii legalizes same-sex weddings, it automatically raises the issue for the entire country. "We will be [in Hawaii] five minutes after it's ratified," said New Yorker Christine Edwards, who is engaged to Marjorie Hill. Anticipating such a situation, Utah's legislature already voted in March not to recognize out-of-state marriages that would not be legal under its own laws.

In facing the issue, states will have to bear in mind that marriage has two dimensions: the spiritual one of love and commitment, and the worldly one of health plans and inheritance rights. The fight in Hawaii is mostly about the paperwork. Baehr and Dancel are already free to take their vows before any minister willing to perform the ceremony, and the change in the law they seek would not compel a priest, say, to officiate. Gay church weddings, virtually unheard of before 1968, are now officially sanctioned in a few denominations, and quietly taking place in others (although in recognition that only the state can ratify a marriage, they are usually called something like "blessings of a holy union"). A lot depends, though, on where one lives. Some Episcopal priests are happy to perform gay marriages, but a year ago, when Jim Black and Thom Monnahan sought to get married in Seattle's Episcopal Cathedral of St. Mark's, Bishop Vincent Warner forbade it, provoking the couple to stage a 10-day fast in the cathedral. The sympathetic bishop told them they were "on the side of the angels," but they needed to get the Episcopal House of Bishops on their side as well, and so far that hasn't happened.

As for the other aspect of marriage, society has already begun moving, although haltingly, toward a recognition of the legal and financial rights of gay couples. Amazingly enough, it is big business that is leading the way, in the interest of employee morale or, perhaps, elementary fairness. In a trend pioneered just four years ago by Lotus Development Corp., more than 200 American companies and municipalities now extend at least some spousal benefits to their gay employees' partners. These "domestic partnership" programs typically provide for such benefits as health and life insurance, as well as leaves for paternity or maternity, illness and bereavement. Among the corn-parties are such rock-ribbed members of the mainstream as Coors Brewing Co. and the law firm of Covington & Burling (chart). Disney recently joined the list--and is now facing a call for a boycott by the Florida chapter of the American Family Association.

Gay leaders strongly applaud domestic-partnership programs. But many also insist that these programs are weak imitations of the benefits routinely afforded heterosexual couples. A report commissioned by the Hawaii state legislature lists dozens of rights that matrimony confers on heterosexuals but domestic partnerships don't. Among them: spouses can claim a tax deduction for a dependent partner and can qualify for payments under their partner's social security. Bob Stauffer, a heterosexual member of the Hawaiian Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law, says: "It's like saying to Rosa Parks, 'We're going to put air conditioning in the back of the bus.' All the examples of domestic partnership are separate but unequal."

Horror stories: Many gay couples try to duplicate marriage benefits by having lawyers write wills, powers of attorney and other legal documents to protect property, inheritances and the right to make healthcare decisions. But horror stories abound, like that of Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski, two lesbians who lived together for four years in Minnesota. A car accident in 1983 left Kowalski with severe brain injuries. Thompson wanted to care for Kowalski at home, but Kowalski's family placed their daughter in a nursing home. Only after a bitter nine-and-a-half-year legal fight was .Thompson allowed to bring her lover home to St. Cloud, where they continue to live together.

In that light, it's not surprising that the issue should have arisen at a time when many gay couples face illness and the possibility of early death. Just a few years ago, the situation was different: many gay leaders considered marriage an institution somehow alien to gay culture, or a cause that would distract from more important issues. Now, though, most gay organizations endorse legalized marriage. Marriage "is about the legal equality of our love for each other," says Andrew Sullivan, editor of The New Republic. "I think it's as important to us as interfacial marriage was to African-American civil rights."

And that's probably true for a lot of people on the other side of the issue as well. To religious conservatives, sanctioning gay relationships is another attack on American public morality. As Robert Knight, director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council, put it: "Marriage by definition joins the two opposite sexes together. It is the building block of civilization. That's why we shouldn't be messing with it." President Bill Clinton apparently agrees, but also disagrees. In October White House aide George Stephanopoulos told gay and lesbian journalists that Bill Clinton didn't support legally recognized gay marriage. But last week Clinton's deputy press secretary, Ginny Terzano, said, "The president doesn't think that same-sex marriages should be outlawed."

The issue will be joined again in Hawaii, where the Supreme Court ruled in Baehr's suit that forbidding same-sex marriages constituted sex discrimination, violating the state constitution's equal-rights amendment. Now a trial court must decide if a "compelling state interest" exists to justify the ban. In making its case, the state will argue that children are better off with their biological mother and father. Then what about the case of Kevin Williams and Timothy Eustace, who were married last April in Christ Episcopal Church, in Hackensack, N.J., after 17 years together?. In 1988 the couple adopted a 5-Week-old HIV-positive baby who had been left in a Jersey City hospital, followed by an 8-year-old with AIDS, and, five years later, the baby's younger brother. The 8-year-old died, but the two younger ones (who have converted spontaneously to HIV-negative status) were ring-bearers at the wedding.

Many organizations now offer some benefits to gay employees' partners--but sometimes less than spouses get.

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