(RNS) -- In Miami, a 6-year-old boy is caught in the middle of a political fight over whether he belongs with his father in Cuba or newly met relatives in Florida. In California and Vermont, supporters and opponents of greater acceptance for gay couples are battling over legal language defining marriage and benefits for domestic partners. In Washington, the Supreme Court will determine if grandparents have rights to visit grandchildren even if the generation sandwiched between them thinks otherwise. As the 21st century looms, across the country there continue to be new answers to the basic question: "What is a family?" Sociologist Bill D'Antonio has seen a dramatic change in the definition since he began teaching five decades ago. "If we speak about the traditional family, that traditional, nuclear family of mother at home with 2 or 3 or 4 children and the father at work, that is a very small minority of all people whom we could say constitute families today," said D'Antonio, former executive officer of the American Sociological Association. Census statistics bear out D'Antonio's conclusion: In 1998, married couples with at least one child comprised 36 percent of all families. In 1968, married couples with at least one child comprised about half of all families. "Nonfamily households," including people living alone or
with others not related to them have increased from 10.8 million in 1968 to 31.6 million in 1998, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. With this kind of statistical changes, D'Antonio now broadens his family definition to include "a variety of household arrangements" -- from husbands and wives who both work outside the home to heterosexual couples without children at home, to gay couples to widowers living in a nursing home community. "We need to be rethinking what we mean by family and household and relationships and community and caring for one another," said D'Antonio, a visiting sociology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington. "I'm more concerned with the degree to which there is a kind of bond and caring relationships." While D'Antonio, a Roman Catholic, is open to the evolution of the family definition, some conservative Christians maintain there must be some boundary lines for defining family. "I don't think evangelicals are prepared to accept the proposition that a family is any two or more under one roof," said Forest Montgomery, lawyer for the National Association of Evangelicals' Office of 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 -- a man, a woman and God," said Montgomery, referring to Genesis' account of Adam 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 realm
to the role of grandparents. Feeling a Washington state law was too broad, the NAE joined the ACLU in supporting parents in a case before the Supreme Court concerning grandparents' rights to see their grandchildren. "We think parents have a right to determine who shall and who shall not influence their children, including the upbringing of their children," said Montgomery, who is based in Washington. "They shouldn't have to go into court and spend a lot of time and money to defend that fundamental right." Over the months since November when Americans first heard the name Elian Gonzalez, the definitions of family have been intertwined with a political battle between his Cuban relatives and anti-Castro kin in the United States. "I think it's outrageous to think that a family who has only known the child for (a few) months can impose itself in a relationship and try to say it loves the child more than his father of six years and his grandmothers and grandfathers, (and) great-grandmother who have cared for 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 of Elian to his Cuban relatives in the ongoing case that is being considered by U.S. courts. Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, the Catholic university president who moderated a Miami Beach meeting between Elian and his grandmothers in January, has spoken of a bond that has developed between the child and a
Miami cousin. "Well, you can bond with a puppy pretty quickly but if the puppy doesn't belong to you, it doesn't make it right to have that puppy stay with you if their rightful owners are found," Edgar argues. In general, when Edgar looks at family issues relating to other matters, such as gays and grandparents, he said the level of care is a key issue. Grandparents' rights, he believes are "secondary" if parents are competent and responsible. The NCC has not taken a position on same-sex relationships, but Edgar said: "There are some loving partners that are in my estimation more healthy than some of the heterosexual partners that have children and yet abuse those children." The Rev. Elder Donald Eastman, one of the top officials of a predominantly gay denomination, points to the much-ballyhooed "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" television program on Fox as an ironic contrast in loving relationships. During his pastoral ministry in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, Eastman said he has seen many devoted gay couples unable to be with their partner at a critical time -- when the person was in intensive care -- because they had no legal status to be together and a family member opposed the partner's presence by the hospital bed. "And then, on the other hand, in stark contrast, you can have a couple get legally married that doesn't even know each other, let alone
love each other," he said.Pointing to different biblical passages than conservatives, Eastman notes Jesus challenged conventional family notions by saying "whoever does the will of God in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" and telling a disciple to be more concerned about his mission than the burial of a family member. "There are religious institutions today who are simply trying to build a better yesterday," he said. "They have an idealized idea of what family was and try to retreat to some sanctuary where that's safe. On the other hand you have ... religious movements that see that the real, the ultimate definitions of relationship are rooted in love and if you can look at where and how love is present in relationship, that is where you find true family." Evangelical Christian feminist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen considers gay couples "households" and not families but she believes there might be less of a conservative/liberal divide if the discussion about benefits for people outside heterosexual married relationships was expanded beyond same-sex situations. Van Leeuwen, resident scholar at the Center for Christian Women and Leadership at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., said if it was framed as a "public issue that has to do with being fair to women who are looking after an aging parent, being fair to siblings who are running a farm, I think you'd find a lot of that divide collapsing." Eastman agrees that domestic partnerships might include far more
than gay couples, but said state benefits for partners might not extend over state lines in the same way that marital status does. Thus, he would prefer that Vermont legislators approve gay marriage rather than extending legal rights to homosexual domestic partnerships, the direction approved by a Vermont House committee. He also hopes California's March 7 ballot initiative that would define marriage as strictly heterosexual will be defeated. A variety of religious groups long have grappled with what Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow calls the "changing reality" of families. Within Judaism, where synagogue membership has often been described as "family membership," Plaskow said Reform rabbis now support same-sex civil marriage while Orthodox congregations are working hard to bring singles together to continue models of traditional marriage. "It's not as if the issue is being ignored," said Plaskow, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. "It's just being treated differently across denominations." So, as the definition continues to evolve, what's ahead? Eastman predicts gay marriage will be approved by at least one state in the "next several years" while Van Leeuwen worries about children growing up with gay couples and missing out on "stable adult role models in their lives of both sexes." Edgar, of the National Council of Churches, expects notions of family to crystallize within the decade. "I think it's like a blurry television set with the Supreme Court, political forces, political candidates, case history, kind of turning the knobs and I think five years from now we might see more clearly," he said.
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