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A too-shallow debate

On the issue of same-sex marriage, the American people _ gay, lesbian and straight alike _ deserve more thoughtful analysis than they are getting from their leaders in Washington. For the most part, the politicians have not dared to venture far beyond religious and moral descriptions of same-sex marriage into the reality underlying the debate: that many Americans are being denied equal treatment in a host of areas simply because of whom they love.

For better or worse, the issue needs full airing _ something it clearly failed to get when the House recently rushed to approve the "Defense of Marriage Act." The bill would deny federal benefits to same-sex spouses and allow states to ignore such marriages if and when they are ever sanctioned elsewhere. Members said they were rushing to preempt an expected Hawaii court decision approving same-sex marriages. With that decision still at least a year away, the rush was clearly more an effort to score political points and force uncomfortable choices in this election year.

In all the rush, the House debate _ understandably emotional _ was unsatisfyingly shallow. Bill supporters decried the moral perversion of homosexuality, while bill opponents portrayed gay marriage as carrying the same civil-rights imperative that interracial marriages presented decades ago. With that overly simplistic dichotomy, it's no wonder the House produced a bill that appears unconstitutional on its face and does little justice to the complexity of the underlying issues.

To their credit, many traditional supporters of gay rights tried to persuade GOP leaders to shelve the bill until the General Accounting Office could study how the government's denial of benefits affects same-sex partners. But that failed, and the bill was passed _ with many of those traditional supporters joining in the approval. Like many Americans, they were not prepared to endorse same-sex marriage.

The bill's chief author, Rep. Robert Barr, R-Ga., is probably right to hail the House vote as evidence that "America today is not ready to redefine marriage" to include homosexual unions. That is the resounding message of public opinion polls. At the same time, many Americans appear willing to consider other ways to address discrimination against gays. They are just waiting for leadership.

That leadership is not likely to come from President Clinton. His press secretary Mike McCurry criticized the House action as "gay-baiting pure and simple." But in the next breath, he said Clinton plans to sign the bill if it passes the Senate.

Some constitutional scholars believe the bill's provision giving states the option to ignore other states' decrees runs afoul of the Constitution's "full faith and credit" clause. Others disagree, saying states have historically been able to settle conflicting marriage laws among themselves. That question ultimately will have to be answered by the Supreme Court.

The Senate, meanwhile, has an opportunity to bring some calm reason to this issue when it takes up the bill, probably in September. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has already said he will try to attach an amendment prohibiting job discrimination against gays. At the same time, his colleagues should investigate the impact the continuing denial of state and federal benefits has on gay and lesbian partners in the areas of insurance, health care, taxes, Social Security and employment, among others. This is where the debate should be focused, not on marriage laws.

Clearly, most Americans, including many who support gay rights, are not ready to make a fundamental change in an institution that has been the cornerstone of family life over the centuries. No law or court ruling can change that. But that doesn't mean most people are unwilling to consider what is in the interest of fairness and wise public policy.