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Friday, May 07, 2004 - Page updated at 02:11 P.M.
Legal benefits for gays backed, but state split over marriage
By Susan Gilmore
Most Washington residents believe same-sex couples should have many of the same rights as heterosexual couples, including the ability to form civil unions, share health insurance and receive their partners' Social Security benefits.
But a slim majority say same-sex marriages should not be made legal.
Those were the findings of a Seattle Times Washington Poll of 500 state residents conducted March 19-23. The opinions of Washington residents reflect national sentiment, although opposition to gay marriage is not as strong here as in the rest of the country.
In Washington, slightly more than 50 percent of those polled say gay couples should not have the right to marry, compared with 44 percent of those who support the idea. Nationwide, by comparison, 62 percent oppose gay marriage while only 30 percent favor it, according to a national CBS / New York Times poll in February.
But in sharp contrast to national opinion, Washington residents overwhelmingly oppose a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage an idea backed by President Bush. Only 38 percent of those polled in this state support such an amendment, while 55 percent oppose the idea. In the national poll, 59 percent supported an amendment.
In general, those surveyed in the Washington poll say that laws regarding marriages and civil unions between gay people should be determined by the state, rather than federal government.
The poll was conducted by Elway Research of Seattle. It has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
When it comes to whether same-sex marriages should be made legal, there are clear divisions by gender, geography and religious beliefs.
Democrats support same-sex marriage, Republicans don't. Residents of Western Washington are evenly split on the issue, while those in Eastern Washington are strongly opposed. Women are more likely to support legalizing gay marriage than men.
For many people, though, support for extending broader rights to gay couples often collides with their notions about what makes up a family or how best to raise children.
Even many who say gay couples shouldn't be allowed to marry, still believe they should receive the same health and Social Security benefits as straight married couples. There is a slimmer margin of support though, for allowing gay couples to adopt children. State law allows gay couples to adopt, although not all adoption agencies will work with gay couples, said Nancy Hawkins, a Seattle family attorney.
"The great divide is over the concept of family," said Stuart Elway, the Times' pollster. "We had solid majorities in favor of civil unions and shared rights and benefits, but the sample was split when it came to marriage and adopting children."
Glen Hult, 75, a retired farmer from Moses Lake, reflected those sometimes conflicted views. Like many who were opposed to gay marriage, he pointed to moral and religious admonitions.
"It's against the word of God and in my life that is the final word," said Hult, 75. "Jesus is the supreme person and he is against it."
Supporters of gay marriage often view the issue as part of a broader civil-rights struggle, or cite their own personal experiences with gay friends or relatives.
Tyler Parsons, 18, a student from Gig Harbor, supports gay marriage. He said his girlfriend's mother, a lesbian, has gone through a marriage ceremony. While he supports the re-election of Bush, Parson said he disagrees with the president's stand on gay marriage.
"I don't think (Bush) should say that. I want to let people do what they want to do," he said.
Suzy Hatch, a home-care worker from Burien, supports gay marriages because she believes, as consenting adults, gender preference shouldn't make any difference.
"If they want to get married they should be able to get married," said Hatch, 49. "I oppose other things I consider worse, like war and being inhuman to other human beings."
But that doesn't necessarily mean they support gay marriages.
Donna Morey, 63, a tavern owner from Shoreline, said her cousin, who was gay, died of AIDS. She said she was close to him until the day he died, "loving him all the days of his life." But she opposes gay marriages and supports a constitutional amendment to ban those marriages.
"I'm not opposed to homosexuals, but I'm opposed to the very militant way this has been pushed down our throats. They just can't hijack the sacred institution of marriage and call it their own."
Morey opposes gay and lesbian couples adopting children. "I have no objection to them raising their own children," she said, "but when a child is parentless we should offer them as near a normal family as possible, a mommy and daddy of the opposite sex."
Some supporters of gay marriage also have mixed feelings.
Gail Hall, 50, who lives in Rainier Valley, supports gay marriage. But the African-American woman worries about proponents calling it a civil-rights issue.
"If people want to be together, why not. No harm, no foul to anyone," she said.
"But compared to what the civil-rights movement was used for, the gay-rights movement is frivolous. People died to get the rights we have."
When it comes to the role of government particularly, the federal government in overseeing marriage, Washington residents exhibit a strong libertarian streak.
Nearly 60 percent said the federal government shouldn't play any role at all in promoting or encouraging "traditional marriage" between a man and a woman. And when asked whether laws regarding marriage or civil unions between gay couples should be overseen by state or federal government, 23 percent of those polled answered "neither."
Larry Brewer, who is retired and lives near Spokane, equates it with gun rights. "People should have the freedom to marry," he said. "I believe (the government) shouldn't be taking our freedoms away. I wouldn't do it, but why should I prohibit someone from being happy in their life?"
Rachael Chmielewski, 19, of Stanwood, who opposes gay marriage but doesn't support a constitutional amendment, added, "The government does not have the right to tell us who, what or when we can marry."
Not surprisingly, religious beliefs create some of the sharpest fault lines in the debate.
Among those who say religion is extremely important in their lives, 70 percent oppose gay marriage.
And 66 percent of those who describe themselves as "born again" Christians oppose gay marriage, compared with 49 percent of Christians who say they aren't "born again."
Chmielewski said, "It's very clear in the Bible that this is not something God wants. Since I want to follow what God wants, this is not what he agrees with."
On the other hand, 70 percent of those who don't consider religion important in their lives support gay marriage.
The strongest support for gay marriage among those who describe themselves as Christians comes from Catholics, who are evenly split on the question.
"Even though I don't think I would want to have that kind of relationship, if people actually love each other and good things happen out of that relationship, that's a good thing" he said, pointing out that there was a time when black people couldn't marry white people.
Stewart, 55, also supports gay couples adopting children. "There's a lot of children in our society that need help and we don't have an unlimited supply of mothers and fathers," he said.
In other poll findings:
Of those who say they are supporting President Bush's re-election, 82 percent say they oppose gay marriage. Among Sen. John Kerry's backers, 66 percent say they support the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. Two-thirds of Bush supporters favor a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriages; 80 percent of Kerry supporters oppose it.
Support for gay marriage goes up with level of education: 34 percent of those with a high-school education favor gay marriage, 40 percent of those with some college, 48 percent of those with college degrees and 62 percent of those with graduate degrees.
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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