(RNS) -- In Miami, a 6-year-old boy is caught in the middle of apolitical fight over whether he belongs with his father in Cuba or newlymet relatives in Florida. In California and Vermont, supporters and opponents of greateracceptance for gay couples are battling over legal language definingmarriage and benefits for domestic partners. In Washington, the Supreme Court will determine if grandparents haverights to visit grandchildren even if the generation sandwiched betweenthem thinks otherwise. As the 21st century looms, across the country there continue to benew answers to the basic question: "What is a family?" Sociologist Bill D'Antonio has seen a dramatic change in thedefinition since he began teaching five decades ago. "If we speak about the traditional family, that traditional, nuclearfamily of mother at home with 2 or 3 or 4 children and the father atwork, that is a very small minority of all people whom we could sayconstitute families today," said D'Antonio, former executive officer ofthe American Sociological Association. Census statistics bear out D'Antonio's conclusion: In 1998, marriedcouples with at least one child comprised 36 percent of all families. In1968, married couples with at least one child comprised about half ofall families. "Nonfamily households," including people living alone orwith others not related to them have increased from 10.
8 million in 1968to 31.6 million in 1998, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. With this kind of statistical changes, D'Antonio now broadens hisfamily definition to include "a variety of household arrangements" --from husbands and wives who both work outside the home to heterosexualcouples without children at home, to gay couples to widowers living in anursing home community. "We need to be rethinking what we mean by family and household andrelationships and community and caring for one another," said D'Antonio,a visiting sociology professor at the Catholic University of America inWashington. "I'm more concerned with the degree to which there is a kindof bond and caring relationships." While D'Antonio, a Roman Catholic, is open to the evolution of thefamily definition, some conservative Christians maintain there must besome boundary lines for defining family. "I don't think evangelicals are prepared to accept the propositionthat a family is any two or more under one roof," said ForestMontgomery, lawyer for the National Association of Evangelicals' Officeof Governmental Affairs. Many evangelicals would not regard homosexual couples as a family,he said. "Actually, the marriage in a sense is a three-party arrangement -- aman, a woman and God," said Montgomery, referring to Genesis' account ofAdam and Eve. "The divine plan -- not to mention anatomical differences-- is plain. The Bible speaks of a man and a woman."The NAE's concerns about family extended beyond the same-sex realmto the role of grandparents.
Feeling a Washington state law was toobroad, the NAE joined the ACLU in supporting parents in a case beforethe Supreme Court concerning grandparents' rights to see theirgrandchildren. "We think parents have a right to determine who shall and who shallnot influence their children, including the upbringing of theirchildren," said Montgomery, who is based in Washington. "They shouldn'thave to go into court and spend a lot of time and money to defend thatfundamental right." Over the months since November when Americans first heard the nameElian Gonzalez, the definitions of family have been intertwined with apolitical battle between his Cuban relatives and anti-Castro kin in theUnited States. "I think it's outrageous to think that a family who has only knownthe child for (a few) months can impose itself in a relationship and tryto say it loves the child more than his father of six years and hisgrandmothers and grandfathers, (and) great-grandmother who have caredfor and loved him for six years of his life," said the Rev. Bob Edgar,general secretary of the National Council of Churches. The New York-based ecumenical council has supported the return ofElian to his Cuban relatives in the ongoing case that is beingconsidered by U.S. courts. Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, the Catholic university president whomoderated a Miami Beach meeting between Elian and his grandmothers inJanuary, has spoken of a bond that has developed between the child and aMiami cousin. "Well, you can bond with a puppy pretty quickly but if the puppydoesn't belong to you, it doesn't make it right to have that puppy staywith you if their rightful owners are found," Edgar argues.
In general, when Edgar looks at family issues relating to othermatters, such as gays and grandparents, he said the level of care is akey issue. Grandparents' rights, he believes are "secondary" if parentsare competent and responsible. The NCC has not taken a position on same-sex relationships, butEdgar said: "There are some loving partners that are in my estimationmore healthy than some of the heterosexual partners that have childrenand yet abuse those children." The Rev. Elder Donald Eastman, one of the top officials of apredominantly gay denomination, points to the much-ballyhooed "Who Wantsto Marry a Multimillionaire?" television program on Fox as an ironiccontrast in loving relationships. During his pastoral ministry in the Universal Fellowship ofMetropolitan Community Churches, Eastman said he has seen many devotedgay couples unable to be with their partner at a critical time -- whenthe person was in intensive care -- because they had no legal status tobe together and a family member opposed the partner's presence by thehospital bed. "And then, on the other hand, in stark contrast, you can have acouple get legally married that doesn't even know each other, let alonelove each other," he said.