I don't understand what the fuss is all about. Wait, yes I do.
It's about prejudice, hatred, bigotry, all carried out under the guise of religious morality. In recent years, the issue of gay rights, especially the right to marry, has exploded in this country. Liberal states such as Hawaii and Vermont have considered trumping the government by allowing such marriages, but have fallen short of this goal. What we have instead in Vermont is the legalization of "civil unions", which are a mockery of the rights that the heterosexuals of this country are allowed.
These civil unions do not carry the rights and privileges of marriage because the government and most of the other states do not recognize the union. Vermont grants some limited benefits, but it is nothing like what married people enjoy. So the question remains, why doesn't the government recognize these unions, and what exactly is the difference between a union and a marriage?
Perhaps the best way to begin answering these questions is to define marriage. Christians believe that marriage is a sacred pact with God. As an atheist, I believe it is a solemn pact with the person you are marrying. It all boils down to a promise, or set of promises, made to another person. Some of the common promises are fidelity, a pledge to care for one another, and a pledge to remain with that person until death. Many people choose to define marriage as a pledge of sexual exclusivity, fidelity, family and permanence of commitment or moral reasons between one man and one woman, their God and community. By denying same sex marriages, the implication is that homosexuals are incapable of pledging sexual exclusivity, fidelity, and permanence of commitment. There is also the unspoken societal rule that when you get married, you have to have children, which by no means should be used to define what a marriage is. This would mean that childless couples should not be considered to be married.
By including God in the definition, atheists ought to also be banned from marriage, as they do not pledge anything to a deity. The inclusion of ambiguous "moral reasons" in this definition is also problematic and faulty, as there is no standard set of "morals" agreed upon by all members of society. The problem with morality is that it is often associated with religious participation and tends to be theocratical in nature. In the United States, laws cannot be based on theocratic values, as they amount to an endorsement of a specific religion by the government.
Religious bigotry is perhaps the biggest reason why same sex marriages are illegal in this country, because there is the claim that homosexuality is condemned in the New Testament. To address this issue, let's consider some points:
The Roman Catholic Church has preserved more than 8,000 copies of the Bible written in Latin and called the Vulgate which was originally translated from Greek and Hebrew to Latin by Saint Jerome. Jerome (347-420) was born in Stridon, near the modern-day Rijeka, Croatia to Christian parents and was given a fine classical education. He spent three years (379-382) in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) where he studied Greek and the Bible under Eastern Church father, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. Jerome was ordained a priest.
At the age of 37, he was appointed secretary to Pope Damasus I and became an influential figure. Damasus selected Jerome to create a new Latin Bible, which was badly needed by the Church. Jerome was close to a Roman widow named Paula and her daughter. He traveled to Bethlehem in 386 to study Hebrew under Jewish scholars and was accompanied by Paula (later Saint Paula) and her daughter. At first Jerome used the Greek Septuagint for his Old Testament translation. Later he consulted the original Hebrew texts. Jerome was a contemporary of Saint Augustine (354-430) who was the leading figure in the Church in North Africa, and they were known to have met or corresponded. It may have been through this contact that Jerome obtained his Alexandrian manuscripts common in North Africa from which he translated the New Testament portion of the Latin Vulgate.
The Vulgate shows that Jerome did not use Byzantine manuscripts from the Eastern Church. Through the next 12 centuries, the text of the Vulgate was transmitted with less and less accuracy, or was deliberately revised. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) recognized the need for an authentic Latin text and authorized a revision of the extant corrupt editions. This revision is the basic Latin text still used by the Roman Catholic Church and scholars. With all of these revisions, how can Christians possibly declare the New Testament as the "Word of God"? It is the word of humans and clergy, revised to fit their own needs, politics, and beliefs. Not to mention all the "additions" to the Bible that members of the Church felt were important topics. St. John maintained that Jesus did and taught very many other things not recorded in the Bible. How can we be sure that these teachings have not been modified over the many years? In other words, the Bible is an unreliable source for spreading the "Word of God", let alone using it to dictate social policy and law.
In its most simplistic definition, marriage is a choice, made every single day. When a person wakes up in the morning, he or she has the ability to choose whether to remain married or not. By denying homosexuals the right to marry each other, the government is saying the gay people are incapable of making this promise and this choice. To understand why the government takes this position, one must recall American history.
This country is a Christian country, based on Puritan values. Since the 1600's, theocracy has melded and merged with every facet of law in America, and has shaped our society into what it is today. From the Declaration of Independence to our currency, God is everywhere, and lawmakers have used this religious premise to influence the laws. Examples of this idea are found in the subject of blue laws, which is defined as legislation regulating public and private conduct, especially laws relating to Sabbath observance. The term was originally applied to the 17th-century laws of the theocratic New Haven colony; they were called "blue laws after the blue paper on which they were printed. New Haven and other Puritan colonies of New England had rigid laws prohibiting Sabbath breaking, breaches in family discipline, drunkenness, and excesses in dress. Although such legislation had its origins in European Sabbatarian and sumptuary laws, the term "blue laws is usually applied only to American legislation. With the dissolution of the Puritan theocracies after the American Revolution, blue laws declined; many of them lay forgotten in state statute books only to be revived much later. The growth of the prohibition movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries brought with it other laws regulating private conduct. Many states forbade the sale of cigarettes, and laws prohibited secular amusements as well as all unnecessary work on Sunday; provision was made for strict local censorship of books, plays, films and other means of instruction and entertainment. Although much of this legislation has been softened if not repealed, there are still many areas and communities in the United States, especially those where religious fundamentalism is strong, that retain blue laws. 
Because this fundamentalism exists in the United States, people are denied rights based on those religious beliefs. Homosexual rights are a prime example of this. Homosexuals should be allowed to marry in a church that supports gay marriages. If other churches don't want to, that is fine - they have the right to govern their own religion. However, the state cannot discriminate against homosexuals on the basis of the lawmakers' religious convictions, for this is in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, specifically in violation of the separation of Church and State clause. By using religious biases to deny marriage rights to homosexuals, the government is, in effect, sponsoring a state religion.
There is a myth in this country that marriage is an institution, that it is one of our most basic "truths" developed slowly through thousands of years of civilization, and it is a founding pillar of our society. Marriage is not an institution. It is a choice made every single day to remain with one person under law. Religion removed, marriage is a legal arrangement. When discussing the legal aspects of marriage, religious arguments cannot be used because it is an unconstitutional argument. One cannot use the moral argument either, because morals are different for each and every person, and are also founded on religion. If marriage were truly a "pillar of society", there would not be a 51% divorce rate in this country. Heterosexual immorality, to apply the defunct "moral" argument to the question, and irresponsibility has severely harmed the institutions of marriage and the family much more so than any homosexual activism.
Once the religious and moral arguments have been removed from the debate, there is very little left to debate over. Every time people don't like something in this country, they try to get it banned. When people see programs on television that they find offensive, they try to censor it. No one thinks "Hey, maybe I ought to change the channel!" Instead, they complain to the "Moral Police Squad" out there trying to tell everyone else how to run their lives. This country was founded on the freedom of choice, but people would much rather try to control others than change themselves. It is all about power over others.
So what exactly is the difference then between a marriage and a civil union? It depends on whether you are gay or not. Marriage via religious ceremony has a moral construct from the past. Civil marriages do not. The reason for this is that one religion's morals are not the same as another's. The morals of the conservative Christian right should not dictate what everyone in this country should or should not do. The way I see it is that thousands of heterosexual couples get a Justice of the Peace and have a civil ceremony. It happens everyday. No one questions whether they are married or not. In this type of marriage, there is no religious aspect. Why does this have to be different for gay people? Why can't they get married in civil ceremonies and have all of the same marriage benefits as straight couples?
Civil unions do not have the rights and privileges of marriage. Homosexuals joined in a civil union cannot file joint tax returns, get health benefits, Social Security benefits, inherit real estate, be listed as next of kin, etc. It's not just about the recognition. It's also about the benefits awarded by the government. Here is an example:
Two men have been living together in a monogamous relationship for thirty years (better than a lot of heterosexual relationships!) and one of them dies. Unless they are married, the surviving partner is not entitled to the life insurance money (must be a family member), and other benefits which require a family member as the benefactor. This is the real tragedy - homosexual couples are not even allowed to provide for each other after death.
When I die, I want to know that my wife will be taken care of (i.e. insurance, etc.) - it should be no different for homosexuals.
Many people will argue that marriage ought to be only between a man and a woman. When the counter-argument that love should be a criteria for marriage is presented, the argument is skewed to include many other situations. They will argue that "I love my lab, or another person loves a child, or another loves a house or a cat or groups of people who love each other. Are you suggesting that they also be allowed to marry whatever they love?" However, marriage is first and foremost between people, not inanimate objects or animals; real people, with real jobs, who return the love that the other is giving. The same love that a heterosexual gives his or her spouse, and receives in return.
Since it is only between someone else and religion has been removed, then marriage can better be defined as a legally binding contract. If marriage is such a contract, why should married people have any special considerations in our society? Marriage should be a private contract because it is only an issue between private parties. Then if marriage had no special benefits for the parties involved, marriage can then be further defined as a relationship in a contract or under contract law.
If this were the case, one cannot make a contract with an inanimate object, because it cannot agree to anything. That is why you can't marry your house or television, and would thus render the argument about marrying your pet or television null and void. Additionally, a child is not mentally or emotionally capable of giving consent to anything until they reach the age of 16. This argument is not a morally based argument; it is founded on current laws. This is why you cannot marry a child - they must be able to consent to the contract that you propose.
Further, if marriage were to be considered a legally binding private contract between two parties, the definition of such a contract will deny that there are such moral reasons for the contract. Marriage would then become an "arrangement" that is purely a private matter designed solely to satisfy the desires of the "married" parties. But why else do people get married? People get married to satisfy the desire of the individuals to get married. And yes, it is a private arrangement. It is nobody else's business whom I chose to marry, as it is none of my business who you chose to marry. Gay people marrying each other does not affect me, or anyone else but the two people who are getting married. For everyone in this country who has something against gay people, get over it, because it has nothing to do with you, and is none of your business in the first place.
If that is the case, there is no real reason that marriage should require exclusivity, fidelity, permanence or even a limit of two people or even to people, unless otherwise specified by the contract. Like divorce in marriage, a contract can also be dissolved through legal means, the same way that a divorce proceeds. By denying homosexuals the right to form such contracts, the conclusion is that homosexuals are incapable of honoring the exclusivity, fidelity, and permanence aspects of such a contract that is mentioned above.
The fear that same sex marriages will damage the family and the institution of marriage by forcing same sex marriages onto an institution that is a main pillar of our society is ridiculous. Marriages between two people are private, and have nothing to do with society as a whole, much less the tradition of marriage. If marriage is a choice, then there is no force involved. There is no entity which forces parties to marry each other, except in certain cultures where arranged marriages are the tradition. In such case, a legal challenge by an unwilling party would most certainly win, if the challenge was presented in the United States.
The point of marriage is to pledge to the person you want to marry that you will spend the rest of your life with them and love them until the day you die, in a traditional wedding with traditional vows. It has an additional purpose of tying someone else to you for life to share this life with. Granted, one does not need marriage for any of these things, but the actual marriage is a way of making the decision legally binding.
By denying homosexuals the right to form legally binding contracts with one another in the form of marriage, the United States is discriminating against a large population of its citizens, based on sexual preference. The time has come for the United States to recognize its obligations to all of its citizens, and act in concert with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Until this happens, homosexuals will continue to be discriminated against and treated like second-class citizens.