NBC's decision to allow gay couples to enter the "Today" show's annual wedding contest triggered a passionate online debate Friday, opening a new front in the fiercely waged battle over same-sex marriage.
The move came the same day as a federal judge in Boston ruled part of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, ratcheting up the legal fight over the rights of gays to marry. Activists on both sides are also keenly anticipating a court ruling on the legality of California's ban on gay marriage.
The popular "Today" wedding contest, now in its 11th year, is an unexpected forum for a debate over social change. The segment invites viewers to act as wedding planners, voting on the couple who will get to marry at Rockefeller Plaza, what they will wear and where they will honeymoon. The theme of this year's wedding, which is scheduled to be held Oct. 6, is "modern love."
"Today" announced its decision Wednesday night after executive producer Jim Bell met with representatives of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which had complained that the contest application provided only an option for "bride" and "groom."
NBC said the contest had been limited to heterosexual couples because the weddings take place in New York state, which does not issue wedding licenses to gay couples. But after GLAAD leaders noted that New York recognizes the wedding licenses of gay couples legally obtained in other states, producers decided to change the rules.
"Our intent was not to be discriminatory or exclusive," the show said in a statement posted on the "Today" website Wednesday night. " 'Today' is a longtime supporter of the LGBT community, and GLAAD considers us an ally. We are committed to keeping those relationships strong and positive. We have opened up the application process to same-sex couples, and will extend the deadline to Monday, July 12. Moving forward, we ensure that our future wedding contests will be inclusive of all couples."
GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios heralded the move, saying the group was "thrilled" that the program "now recognizes what most fair-minded Americans have already concluded -- a wedding celebrates love and commitment, whether the spouses are straight or gay."
"Today's" decision lit up online forums, where posters engaged in emotional exchanges.
"Thank you to 'Today' and GLAAD for not being bold and unafraid -- leading the way in realizing that fairness, love, modernity deserve to exist and be expressed in ways that are sometimes even in spite of laws that say otherwise," one poster wrote on the show's website.
"I am totally disappointed in the 'Today' show," responded another. "The Bible clearly states what is marriage and it also states the abomination of this kind of acts between men and men and women with women. God is not pleased and neither am I. What about my rights!!!"
"Thank you," countered another writer, who said he was a longtime viewer. "My son is gay and I want him to grow up in a world where he knows that he is welcomed not excluded."
Nearly 800 comments were posted on the show’s Facebook page by Friday morning, with some warning that the show would lose viewers and others tussling over the interpretation of Biblical verses addressing homosexuality.
The raw responses suggested that the top-rated morning show will continue to field strong reactions to its decision, particularly if a gay couple is selected to be part of the group of finalists that competes on-air for the prize.
"NBC has lost my viewing and support," read one comment on the show's website. "Stick to what's legal and not what SOME few want. So I'm guessing one of the four finalist will definetly be of this group to make everyone happy??!! Majority won't be happy. We weren't made to be in a same sex relationship. Liberal media working here!"
One poster, "Bill the banker," who claimed to watch the show every morning before work, said the change could make for a livelier competition: "Equality may have paved the way for one fun and interesting wedding contest this year!”
-- Matea Gold
Ministry of Gossip: Lady Gaga debuts new song, 'You and I,' on the 'Today' show
Photo: Last year's winners, Leigh Daniel and Nick Cordes, are congratulated by Al Roker, Meredith Vieira, Matt Lauer and Ann Curry. Credit: NBC