Last week, the most recent salvos in the American culture war were fired from both sides of the divide on the issue of the legalization of same-sex marriage.

The impetus for the current dust-up was provided by the New Jersey Supreme Court which decided 4-3 last Wednesday that gay couples were entitled to the same legal rights and financial protections as heterosexual couples. The court ordered the N.J. legislature to write a bill giving same-sex couples those rights and benefits within 180 days, but did allow the lawmakers the wiggle room of not designating their yet-to-be-formed legalese as “marriage” per se.

In its ruling, the court said, “Although we cannot find that a fundamental right to same-sex marriage exists in this state, the unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our state constitution.”

All seven judges strenuously agreed that the court’s role, with regards to interpreting the N.J. constitution, was to ensure that the rights and benefits of heterosexual marriage were extended to committed same-sex partners.

Anyhoo, the difference in the vote among the judges came down to semantics and the question of who bears responsibility for the deciding (four pointed to the legislature and three to the courts).

In the majority opinion, Justice Barry T. Albin wrote, “If the age-old definition of marriage is to be discarded, such change must come from the crucible of the democratic process.”

Speaking for the dissenters, who wanted the court to go further with its decision and use the term “marriage” and its attendant symbolism, Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz penned, “We must not underestimate the power of language.”

Especially in a country where the people speak (mostly) the same tongue, but rarely mean the same thing, mused The Eye.

Currently, 45 states have some sort of legal barrier to gay marriage — be it statutory or state constitutional referenda. Virginia, Tennessee, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and, of course, South Carolina have state referendum constitutional questions on the ballot next week that would do the same if successful.

The Eye decided to pay a visit to the friendly folks at the Alliance For Full Acceptance and see what these busy bees (major media campaign against the amendment in the works) had to say about the N.J. decision.

AFFA president Susie Prueter told The Eye, “The N.J. Supreme Court got to the heart of the matter in addressing the unequal dispensation of protections for similar people in similar situations. Whatever happens from here, this is a very positive ruling: more protections, stability, peace of mind, and dignity for families. That doesn’t sound like the crumbling of society to me.”

Hear, hear!

President George W. Bush didn’t waste any time hopping into the fray, as Republican candidates in the midterm election are on the ropes all over the country.

Political oddsmakers are calling 20 House races and seven Senate races as dead heats, and it’s quickly become anybody’s guess as to what will motivate the voters. The Eye suspects that weather will be the major determinant.

Last Thursday, a day after the N.J. decision, Bush addressed a luncheon of wealthy partisans at the Iowa State Fairgrounds to raise funds for a G.O.P. congressional candidate. His remarks originally were to be about the national economy and agriculture.

That didn’t last long.

“Yesterday in New Jersey, we had another activist court issue a ruling that raises doubt about the institution of marriage, ” said Bush.

Uhhmm, thought The Eye, did he read the same court opinions?

Predictably, Bush drew applause when he said that marriage was “a union between a man and a woman. I believe it’s a sacred institution that is critical to the health of our society and the well-being of families and it must be defended.”

The Eye realizes that Bush is merely trying to divert voters’ attention from an increasingly costly and unpopular war and the G.O.P.’s Biblically-proportioned mishandling of the Mark Foley nonsense by using the tried-and-true wedge issue of gay marriage to motivate his core constituency of “values voters.”

The Eye is increasingly hard-pressed to believe that the president actually gives a red rat’s ass about gay marriage because, although he says it will undermine the family structure, he never says how this would happen … the man doesn’t buy what he’s selling.

However, his political hypocrisy on the issue has agitated the simmering well of prejudice that exists in this country, and in doing so he is attempting to dump America’s current problems at the feet of the gay community for the crass objective of winning elections.

The Eye is certain that with time and tide, state and federal law will soon catch up with the earnest desire of all committed gay couples to institutionalize their relationships. And in the event things don’t work out for one of these couples, they can thank those millions of thoughtful straight people who have previously blazed a trail through divorce court for getting all the precedents set.

As for those “values voters,” they need to start paying attention.

They might be voting for conservative Republican candidates who say they’re against gay marriage or abortion or free trade, but in return these citizens are getting tax breaks for the rich and their children shipped off to an unfamiliar desert to get their brains blown out. In other words, they ain’t getting much value for their vote.