State of the Union

updated 08/18/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The DeHoog-Diller wedding had all the trappings of traditional nuptials. It was held among the blooming rose bushes at the University of Michigan's botanic gardens July 11. There were 10 attendants and 100 guests, and a Unitarian minister presided. The bride, Abby DeHoog, wore a white halter-neck gown with beaded bodice and trim. The other bride, Liz Diller, wore a white strapless dress, glistening with rhinestones.

Notably absent: a groom. A lesbian couple who have been together almost five years, DeHoog, 24, and Diller, 23, decided to hold a symbolic wedding ceremony, even though same-sex marriage has no legal standing in the U.S. "We wanted to celebrate our relationship in the same way that straight couples are allowed to do," says DeHoog, who will pursue a master's in pathology at the University of Maryland in the fall. Adds Diller, a restaurant manager: "We weren't doing this to make a political statement; the purpose was to make a commitment statement to us."

If the gay marriage movement is successful, such commitments could become more than symbolic. Since the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law banning sodomy between consenting homosexual adults June 26, the debate over gay marriage has flared to new heights, with the President and even the Pope weighing in. Recent polls show that Americans are deeply divided, and dissenters have a strong voice. Says Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, which claims 2.5 million supporters: "We are mobilizing now."

So far Belgium, the Netherlands and, as of June, parts of Canada have legalized same-sex marriage. In the U.S. only Vermont allows a civil union that confers marital rights such as medical and inheritance benefits, hospital visitation and child custody. Imminently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule on a lawsuit filed by seven gay and lesbian couples charging that the state's marriage statute discriminates against homosexuals. A similar suit is under way in New Jersey. Supporters stress they are striving for more than civil unions. "That's a separate and unequal status only for gay people," says Evan Wolfson, executive director for the New York City-based organization Freedom to Marry. "We're fighting for marriage, not something separate or lesser or different."

It could be a long, polarizing battle. On July 30 President Bush used a rare press conference to underline his stance. "I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman," he said, "and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other." The next day Pope John Paul II decreed that Catholic officials have "a moral duty" to oppose gay marriage. "Marriage is holy," he wrote, "while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law." Congress already took a stand with the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, barring the federal government from granting benefits to same-sex spouses. Now elements of the right want a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. "If George W. Bush makes a campaign issue out of this, as I expect him to," says Rev. Jerry Falwell, "I am certain it will virtually guarantee his election."

The scope of the controversy bewilders Hillary and Julie Goodridge of Boston, who helped spark the Massachusetts suit when they were denied a marriage license in 2001. "We want to get married because we love each other and we want to make our family as strong as it could be," says Julie, 46, an investment adviser who in 1995 bore the couple's daughter Annie, 7, conceived by artificial insemination. "We are not a threat to society here," adds Hillary, 47, who directs a Unitarian philanthropic fund. "People I hear go on and on about how deviant and immoral we are; when questioned, they don't know any gay people."

The Goodridges have been together 16 years. Taking their common name from Hillary's maternal grandmother, they dropped their family names of Smith and Wendrich. Their unofficial status became all too clear after Julie's difficult cesarean delivery, when, at first, Hillary was not allowed to see Annie in the ICU. "They said, 'Only immediate family,' and I had a fit," she says. "Eventually I wore them down. I had never felt so helpless and scared."

It was also a hospital nightmare that incited Bostonians Rob Compton, 54, and David Wilson, 59, to join the suit. In 2000 Compton, a dentist, was hospitalized with kidney stones and Wilson, a property manager, had to grapple with administrators for an hour in order to be at his partner's bedside. "If David had been a woman," Compton says, "all he would have had to say is, 'I'm his spouse.'" The couple—both formerly wed to women for more than 20 years, with grown children—fret about retirement. "We're thinking about how we can take care of each other," says Compton, adding that if the suit fails, "we will continue to fight."

In an echo of the Vietnam era, some gays are heading for Canada. Brendan Fay and Tom Moulton, both 45, had a symbolic wedding near their Brooklyn home—then in July tied the knot legally in Toronto. Swearing to the truthfulness of his application at the license bureau, Fay, a practicing Catholic, insisted on taking his oath on a Bible, "because this is the very book used to deny us this simple moment of equality."

That collision of religion and civil law is what irks DeHoog and Diller, recently returned from a two-week honeymoon in Italy. "Our Constitution is supposed to be based on separation of church and state," says Diller. "But all the reasons for opposing gay marriage come back to religious beliefs." Still, when pressed, the couple would settle for a civil union—and the memories of their wedding day. "My family all cried," says DeHoog. "In a good way."

Richard Jerome and Thomas Fields-Meyer
Tom Duffy in Boston, Kelly Williams in Chicago, Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis and Colleen O'Connor in Washington, D.C.

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