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Notes on a California Sea Change

Posted on Jun 23, 2008
San Francisco marriage
AP photo / Marcio Jose Sanchez

Annemary Franks, left, and Lia Franks raise clasped hands after their marriage at San Francisco City Hall last week. In the foreground are their daughters, Julia, Maggie and Jax.

Watching the couples in line for licenses in Beverly Hills on the first day of gay marriage in California, I was struck by how the scene was so commonplace, even boring—just a bunch of men and women waiting their turn at a nondescript government office.

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It was another of the events of 2008 that could scarcely have been imagined a decade ago, coming after an African-American secured enough delegates to win the Democratic presidential nomination and a woman came close to claiming it.

I have seen social change take place over many years. I’ve been a reporter amid violence, anger, injury, even death.  Here history was being made by happy, calm men and women wearing khakis, polo shirts, Bermuda shorts, none of them making the fashion statements touted by the city’s outrageously expensive shops. I asked a man with a baseball hat and a big gut waiting in line with another man how he felt about the day. “Wow!” he said.

In May, the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban against same-sex marriage, which had been approved by 61 percent of the voters in 2000, and this was the first day marriages were performed under the decision, although a few places had permitted the ceremonies the evening before. Whether the decision stands will be decided by Californians on Nov. 5, when they vote on a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages.

The Supreme Court decision was not some wild thing coming out of the farthest left part of the left coast. Rather, it was written by a man anchored firmly in the mainstream, California Chief Justice Ronald W. George, a moderate Republican appointed to the high court by another moderate Republican, then-Gov. Pete Wilson. George is not afraid of controversy. In 1991, he wrote the high court ruling overturning a state law requiring minors to obtain parental consent before having an abortion. But mostly he is known as a cautious judge who would rather decide cases narrowly, and who devotes a huge amount of time to improving the administration of the state’s court system.


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In striking down the 2000 state voter initiative that limited marriage to a man and a woman, Justice George said: “Marriage properly must be understood to encompass the core set of basic substantive legal rights and attributes ... so integral to an individual’s liberty and personal autonomy that they may not be eliminated or abrogated by the Legislature or by the electorate through the statutory initiative process. ... ”  He also wrote, ” ... An individual’s sexual orientation—like a person’s race or gender—does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.”

Since the 2000 passage of that ban on same-sex marriage, sentiments have changed. A recent Field Poll showed Californians supporting same-sex marriage by a margin of 51 to 42 percent. It was the first time in 30 years of polling on the subject that the Field Poll reported approval of such unions. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that 52 percent of those surveyed opposed the court striking down the ban and 54 percent supported the proposed constitutional amendment that would reverse the high court. This was much closer than the 2000 vote, which means Chief Justice George was not far from the mainstream in writing his opinion.

Both sides expect a close campaign over the proposed constitutional amendment that would wipe out the California Supreme Court decision. “I believe it will pass,” Michelle Hayton, spokesperson for the California branch of Concerned Women of America, supporting the ballot measure, told me. But she added, “It will be a pretty slim margin.”

David Mixner, a well-known gay political consultant and activist, expects a tight race but he believes voters will be reluctant to nullify marriages that have already been performed. “I think we really have a chance of winning,” he said.

A big question is how this emotional issue might impact the presidential campaign.

The Pew Forum on Religious and Public life noted that neither Sen. Barack Obama nor Sen. John McCain favors same-sex marriage. McCain says marriage should be between a man and a woman and should be regulated by the states. He endorsed a 2006 Arizona ballot initiative to limit marriages to those between a man and a woman, which was defeated. Obama says he personally believes that “marriage is between a man and a woman” but also says that “equality is a moral imperative” for gay and lesbian Americans.

In California, Obama is heavily favored to carry the state no matter how it votes on gay marriage. But the same-sex marriage issue could have a heavy impact in the battleground state of Florida, where a proposed constitutional amendment to ban such marriages is on the November ballot. Unlike California, Florida requires a 60 percent majority for passage, and current polls show it just short of that. A similar measure on the Ohio ballot in 2004 brought a huge turnout of conservative Christian voters and helped deliver the state to President George W. Bush, who, unlike McCain, favors a U.S. constitutional amendment limiting marriage to men and women. In a close contest, the issue could tilt Florida to McCain if the amendment fight draws a big conservative turnout.

The impact of the issue goes beyond the California and Florida contests. Like the Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns, the same-sex marriage elections—the way they are fought and how they are covered by the news media—will reveal how deeply we as a nation are coming to terms with a society that is increasingly diverse.

Hopefully, the peaceful scene at the Beverly Hills courthouse heralded another milestone: society’s acceptance of the right of gays and lesbians to marry, for better or for worse.




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By love, September 29, 2010 at 1:37 pm Link to this comment

Chief Justice Ronald W. George has always been known for his stern and narrow ways, though he’s made some big moves that could surprise many people.A few years have come and gone by since this controversial decision, and what I love is the fact that almost all Americans have finally accepted the concept of same sex marriage completely, even though such things were taboo just a few years ago. This is a great step towards communal harmony and the right to live the way all of us want.

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By Dee, June 28, 2008 at 7:38 pm Link to this comment
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We are all ONE people, no matter the color or race or religion or sexual preference. All people deserve the chance to marry the person that they desire as their life’s partner. All people deserve to be treated as equals because they are equal. Isn’t that a no brainer?

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By zasu, June 26, 2008 at 10:52 am Link to this comment

I am an American citizen, living in Canada since 1985.  My partner of 26 years, and I, are getting legally married here in Montreal on August 31.  It pains me that my brothers and sisters in the country of my birth are not afforded the same right under the law of the entire federal government.  Yes, there was opposition to same-sex marriage here in Canada, and there still is. But now that it has been in place since 2005, resistance has lessened by a great deal because all of the shouts that same-sex marriage will ruin marriage for everyone has been proven to be ridiculous. The sun rises and sets everyday and the only difference is that so many more people are living happily and responsibly, and their rights are no longer being trampled upon.  Please, U.S. make us all proud and live up to our Constitutional principles.

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By Joel Shimberg, June 26, 2008 at 10:18 am Link to this comment
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Episcopal Bishop (and uncloseted homosexual) wrote:

“I don’t believe there is any topic addressed more often and more deeply in Scripture than our treatment of the poor, the distribution of wealth, of resources, and the danger of wealth to our souls. One third of all the parables and one sixth of all the words Jesus is recorded to have uttered have to do with this topic, and yet we don’t hear the biblical literalists making arguments about that.”

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By Dominick J., June 25, 2008 at 10:09 am Link to this comment

How happy am I to see these firsts ecouraging posts on Gay Marriage. 
And I would like to add to your opeing response Flex-we need to rise up and remove the Religious Right from ALL government proceedings!  Religion, especially their brand of it, has no place in our government what so ever and if it hadn’t been for them I’m sure our country would have progessed many, many years ago much faster, and because of them we are still having this discussion and misuse of our Civil Rights today.

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By Cindy McFadden, June 25, 2008 at 5:39 am Link to this comment
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Civil rights shouldn’t be voted on and it is likely that this initiative won’t make it to the ballot!!

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By Flex, June 24, 2008 at 10:10 pm Link to this comment
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Rise up against the religious right, and support same-sex marriage!

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By Corinthia, June 24, 2008 at 9:01 pm Link to this comment
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For the day it was legal in Portland OR - what I noticed was how many of the gay women getting married had kids.  Tons of kids - who will probably be straight when they grow-up and will remember the pain, of when the right to get married was torn away from their parents .  These kids are our future and they they will not forget the casual cruelty of strangers deliberately trying to make their life’s difficult.

They will sit in your churches, and say I am straight but I can testify that your believes do not reflect the love of Christ, but your fear and cowardice, expressed by your overwhelming need to harm my parents.

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By Thomas Billis, June 24, 2008 at 12:36 pm Link to this comment

This was always a boring issue.Who cares if gay or straights get married?The institution itself has outlived its relevance.50% of marriages end in divorce.So much for the sacred part.If two gay people love each other why should society deny them the right to see that love turn into a hate that only many divorce people can truly understand.Life liberty and puruit of happiness and if for a gay person marriage is the pusuit of happiness how can society deny that right.

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By nrobi, June 24, 2008 at 6:52 am Link to this comment

In allowing the citizens of California to marry, whether straight or homosexual, the California Supreme Court has finally seen the light of Rights.
It is without a doubt a striking blow for those whom marriage is a religious and “pro-creative” institution.
These are the people for whom, the Bible is inerrant and they want the backing of the state to force their views of life on others without regard to the inhumanity that these doctrines cause. In years gone by the Bible was used, wrongly I might add, to discriminate against people of Jewish heritage, used to justify slavery of a people for whom slavery was not intended, and many other wild and weird doctrines which if researched would scare the “bejeezud” out of any thinking and breathing person.
That this decision should come at this time is fortuitous,  for America is now coming to grips with its past and showing that we too can change from the way we were to the ideal of the Bill of Rights.
I, am somewhat proud of the intestinal fortitude that it took to go against the prevailing train of thought that homosexual people are less than human and do not deserve the protection of the law and marriage.
For those of you who disagree, state sanctioned marriage was never supposed to be about sustaining a religious doctrine. It was supposed to be about protecting the rights of women to inherit their husband’s estate upon his death. It was a protection of the highest kind, that of protecting the rights of women and children, so that they would not be put out on the street on the death of the family breadwinner.
Now that we are a more open and free society, people who are lesbian and homosexual couples, deserve the same rights as those of us for whom sex is between a man and woman. Gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights as any other class of people, or this really isn’t America. 
Should those of you against the rights of others who do not fit your norm, wish to turn back the clock and reduce and even do away with the Bill of Rights, Amerikkka, will be proud, to have you as a citizen.
I, for one do not want to be a citizen of a country where the changes of the past 60 years are rolled back, just so that a few of our citizens feel comfortable in their skin.
It is regrettable that some of the most rabid “Christian” fundamentalists negate the “living word” and stick to interpretations of the Bible that have at their root injustice and prejudice. By doing these things they not only prove that they have no idea what G-d is all about, but prove that they are no better then the Taliban, for the Taliban are the fundamentalists of the Islamic faith.
I, would hope that the citizens of America are better than the Taliban, that they have gone beyond the boundaries of centuries old biases, to be what this country purports to be,  the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD, June 24, 2008 at 6:08 am Link to this comment

Lots of people don’t favor same-sex marriage which is why they marry different sexes.  Obama is probably enlightened enough to not let his preference interfere with his duty to uphold the constitution, unlike George F. Bush. 

People are wising up!  This is a great time in this part of the world.  I think the final nail in the coffin of white male dominance in America would be for Hillary to become Barack’s running mate. 

Think of it:  A guy who looks black is president, a woman is vice president and all those gays who hug and kiss in public and do really disgusting things with their private parts are now allowed by white heterosexual people to partake of the legal benefits of marriage.  This all makes me so happy I could shit my pants!  And I’m a heterosexual white male.

Now, let’s get poverty in America.

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By MikeNYC, June 24, 2008 at 5:50 am Link to this comment
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When it comes to social change, we have to realize that people’s rights are important.  In the south, when I was a kid, integration was touted as the road to the destruction of morality and the country. Interestingly enough, one doctor in the early 1960s wrote a letter to the editor of the paper saying that he would much prefer two men to marry than a black man and a white woman.  His reasons were the supposed inferiority of the progeny and continued moral decay of the country. Seems like some things never change. The fact of the matter is, in some way, this will affect the presidential campaign and I have to say I am not supportive of any candidate who thinks some people shouldn’t be allowed the same rights as others.

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