Same-sex marriage victory in California

May 20, 2008

IN AN unexpected ruling, the California Supreme Court overturned a state law banning same-sex marriage on May 15, opening the door to marriage equality for gays and lesbians in the biggest state in the country.

In the 4-3 decision, the justices explicitly ruled that domestic partnerships and civil unions--which some states have pushed as an alternative to legalization of same-sex marriage--are not a legally adequate substitution for marriage under the law.

"Our state now recognizes that an individual's capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the majority.

"We therefore conclude that in view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples."

Supporters of equal marriage rights gathered outside the California Supreme Court building to celebrate the ruling

The ruling came as a surprise because six of the seven justices on the California Supreme Court are Republican appointees and the court has a reputation of being conservative.

As news of the verdict spread outside of the courthouse, gay marriage supporters cheered and cried with happiness. Jeanie Rizzo, one of the plaintiffs in the case, called her partner Pali Cooper, her partner of 19 years, to ask, "Pali, will you marry me?"

As Rizzo told a reporter, "This is a very historic day. This is just such freedom for us. This is a message that says all of us are entitled to human dignity."

CALIFORNIA IS set to become the second state in the country, behind Massachusetts, where gays and lesbians can legally marry their partners. Although Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages in 2004, then-Gov. Mitt Romney invoked a 1913 law barring non-resident marriages in the state if the marriage would be illegal in the partners' home state.

That same year, hundreds of same-sex couples wed in San Francisco, after Mayor Gavin Newsom declared that the city would allow gays and lesbians to legally marry. The decision helped propel marriage equality movements in cities across the U.S.--and a pushback from the right, which spearheaded numerous anti-gay marriage initiatives over the next two years.

In California, after just a month of legal same-sex weddings in San Francisco, the courts barred the practice and invalidated the marriages that had taken place, citing Proposition 22, the "Defense of Marriage Act"--a referendum banning gay marriage passed by California voters in 2000.

Since then, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has twice vetoed legislation that would have overturned the ban and allowed same-sex couples the right to marry.

The lawsuit leading to this latest victory was filed by two dozen gay and lesbian couples, and joined by the city of San Francisco, Equality California and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, among others. "Today, the California Supreme Court took a giant leap to ensure that everybody--not just in the state of California, but throughout the country--will have equal treatment under the law," said City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who argued the case for San Francisco.

The ruling stands out in another way. It acknowledges that civil unions--which fail to confer many of the more than 1,000 federal and state legal rights that marriage does--are not an acceptable substitute for same-sex couples.

Not surprisingly, right-wing groups like Concerned Women for America (CWA) and others unleashed a hateful tirade following the ruling.

"So-called 'same-sex' marriage is counterfeit marriage," said Matt Barber, a policy director for the group, in a statement. "Marriage is, and has always been, between a man and a woman. We know that it's in the best interest of children to be raised with a mother and a father. To use children as guinea pigs in radical San Francisco-style social experimentation is deplorable."

Although the California Supreme Court's ruling is scheduled to take effect next month, the challenge is only beginning for marriage-equality activists. Conservative groups say they plan to ask the court to stay its ruling until the November elections, when they hope to place an initiative on the ballot to change the state constitution to ban gay marriage. In that case, the courts wouldn't be able to strike down laws against same-sex marriage.

The Secretary of State is set to rule by the end of the month whether conservative groups gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

Without a push from activists to stop them, it's possible that the right will be able to nullify this victory and again set back equal marriage rights in California.

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