TOPICS > Politics

Calif. Court Ruling Renews Debate Over Gay Marriage

May 15, 2008 at 6:20 PM EST
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The California Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriages in the state Thursday, striking down a ban on gay and lesbian nuptials as unconstitutional. Analysts examine reaction to the ruling and its possible impact on the gay marriage debate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the California Supreme Court overturns a ban on same-sex marriages. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels begins with some background on the case.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Cheers and excitement erupted at the courthouse in San Francisco upon news of today’s decision. For thousands of same-sex couples, the ruling by the state’s Supreme Court makes their unions in marriage legal.

The decision makes California the second state to legalize gay marriage, after Massachusetts. And that was gratifying for San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom.

GAVIN NEWSOM, Mayor of San Francisco: It’s about civil rights. It’s about time…

SPENCER MICHELS: In 2000, a California ballot measure overwhelmingly passed that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

But in 2004, Newsom, on his own initiative, granted marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Thousands waited for a chance to be among the first to marry at City Hall.

AMY RENNERT: To be able to be married here in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall is something I never dreamed would be possible. It’s also political.

SPENCER MICHELS: But a few months later, the State Supreme Court ruled that the mayor did not have the power to grant licenses under state law.

It did not, however, rule on the validity of the law, and a battle ensued in superior and state appeals courts. The state appeals court ruled against same-sex marriage.

Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to weigh in again, taking up the city’s case along with others brought by gay and lesbian couples. Today, the justices ruled 4-3 that the previous ban was unconstitutional and said domestic partnerships are not an acceptable substitute for marriage.

Outside the courthouse, opponents said the court was legislating from the bench.

RANDY THOMASSON, President, Campaign for Children and Families: This high court has done what no State Supreme Court has ever done: go against the vote of the people and create a whole new definition of civil rights.

When civil rights become civil wrongs and destroy marriage in the process, it’s not right anymore. This is intolerable; it is absolutely a disaster.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the fight in California is not over yet. Opponents are planning a new ballot initiative for November that would ban gay marriage in the state constitution.

Across the U.S., 26 states have passed similar constitutional bans, while nine states and the District of Columbia have laws establishing civil unions or domestic partnerships.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not surprisingly, there’s strong reaction to the decision from both sides. Jeffrey Brown picks up that part of the story.

Mixed reactions to court's ruling

Geoffrey Kors
Equality California
For the first time in my life and the life of millions of lesbian and gay people, we are truly equal under the law. And I think the joy on that is just hard to express.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we sample some of that reaction now with Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, which works for legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

And Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a group of Christian attorneys that argued against same-sex marriage in the California case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Geoffrey Kors, what's your reaction to the decision? And what do you see is the key legal argument that determined it?

GEOFFREY KORS, Equality California: Well, we're obviously thrilled. You know, for the first time in my life and the life of millions of lesbian and gay people, we are truly equal under the law. And I think the joy on that is just hard to express.

And I think the key thing that the court ruled -- and, remember, this is a very conservative court -- is that the equal protection clause of the state constitution requires just that: equality. And domestic partnership or any other status that is not identical in name, rights, and benefits violates the constitution.

And they also said that discrimination based on sexual orientation -- and they said this for the first time -- receives the highest, strictest level of scrutiny, and the state cannot do anything to deny lesbian and gay people's equality without a compelling state interest. And they said, in this case, there was none.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Lorence, on the legal argument, you disagree. The court used very strong language, a basic civil right. You disagree?

JORDAN LORENCE, Allied Defense Fund: Right. This is the type of issue, and this shows why we need to have this issue decided by a constitutional amendment passed by the people, that judges shouldn't be deciding this.

We had one judge, a bare 4-3 majority ruling this way, nullifying a vote of the people just eight years ago that almost two-thirds of Californians voted to define marriage as one man and one woman.

That is not an act of bigotry; that is an act of common sense, good, reasonable public policy that's existed since the dawn of time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was the ruling a surprise, given that six of the seven judges were actually appointed by Republicans, I understand?

JORDAN LORENCE: Well, a Republican doesn't necessarily mean one who shows judicial restraint. And I think that this is an obvious example of that, that they legislated from the bench and they imposed their will on the people, as Justice Baxter said in his dissent.

Rights versus benefits

Jordan Lorence
Allied Defense Fund
The parallel structure of the domestic partnership benefits program means that there's really not going to be a lot of changes under this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Kors, counties have 30 days, rather, to implement this. But as a practical matter, in terms of benefits, will it change all that much for gay couples?

GEOFFREY KORS: It won't change all that much for gay couples in California, since, through legislation, we have already received most of the rights and benefits.

But, really, what the court got to is marriage is about a lot more than rights and benefits. I don't think any people get married so they can have hospital visitation.

People get married because they meet the person they want to spend the rest of their lives with. People get married because they fall in love. And what the court said today is that love and the dignity and respect that comes with marriage has to be given to lesbian and gay couples.

And they didn't legislate from the bench; they did their job. They upheld this constitution. And that's why a Republican court, who is not in any way deemed to be anything but a conservative and highly respected court, determined that the constitution requires equality.

And it's hard to argue that the equal protection clause of the constitution allows anything else than equal protection.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just as a -- do you, Mr. Lorence, agree that this is more about -- this is not so much about benefits in California?

JORDAN LORENCE: Right. The parallel structure of the domestic partnership benefits program means that there's really not going to be a lot of changes under this.

It was basically to fold in same-sex couples and make them equal, in the sense that they are defined the same as a traditional marriage. So that's basically all. The name has been changed.

Referendum may be in the cards

Geoffrey Kors
Equality California
I don't think there's any question there will be an impact on other states. I mean, this decision is meaningful to every lesbian and gay person in the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mentioned this, and we mentioned this in our set-up piece, that there is a ballot initiative to try to get this before voters in November.

JORDAN LORENCE: Well, fortunate for the voters in California, there's a very vigorous initiative and referendum system. And they've already submitted the signatures for a ballot initiative to be like the majority of states and have a marriage amendment, defining marriage as one man and one woman.

The secretary of state has yet to announce that it's qualified, but there's really no dispute that it will. And I think that this decision is going to be overturned by the highest court in the land, that is, the people, through the initiative process, and that the decision today will not remain the law in California.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Kors, what do you think about that? I know that Governor Schwarzenegger put out a statement today saying that he accepted the ruling and that he himself did not support this move for a constitutional ban.

Do you think it will make it to the ballot? And, if so, will it pass?

GEOFFREY KORS: I do agree that it will most likely make it to the ballot. The governor has actually previously said he'll stand with us and fight this measure. The legislature has twice passed Equality California's marriage bill.

The public is equally divided on this issue. There's been a huge sea-change in public opinion since 2000.

And we are very confident that the voters are sick and tired of the kind of politics of hate and division that has brought this country to the place it is today and will reject this at the ballot box.

And I think this court is unclear about what would happen if it did pass, whether it would overturn this decision. But what's important is that we're going to fight it, and we are going to win in November.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stay with you -- and I'll ask you both about the -- moving away from California, the wider resonance that you might see. Is there a direct or indirect impact on other states now, Mr. Kors?

GEOFFREY KORS: Sure, I don't think there's any question there will be an impact on other states. I mean, this decision is meaningful to every lesbian and gay person in the country.

And I think, when other states and people see their friends and neighbors in California get married and enjoy, really, the happiness and the joy that comes with marriage, and realize that it does nothing to harm anyone else's marriage, other states are going to look at this issue and feel comfortable to move forward and do the same thing.

And when we win the ballot measure in November and uphold this court decision, you know, you'll have the voters, the legislature, the governor, the Supreme Court, all united in support for allowing all loving couples to get married.

And the only opposition is really from these right-wing groups, mostly not from California, who are trying to impose their religious views on all of the people here. And people are going to reject that, and this will start moving around the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Lorence, how do you see the resonance?

JORDAN LORENCE: Well, the Alliance Defense Fund has an office in Sacramento, so we're not from out of state. And I think that there is going to be surprise at how vigorous the support for traditional marriage is, and I would not count this amendment as a loser.

I think it's going to pass, and that's going to send a message to the rest of the states that the fight for traditional marriage is not lost. It's not inevitable that we get same-sex marriage.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you expect, though, that the fight will be taken up in other states?

JORDAN LORENCE: Yes, well, there will be -- the Florida voters will be voting on this. I think Arizona will probably have one in 2008, and this might have some impact on the election, as well.

Ruling comes amidst campaigns

Jordan Lorence
Allied Defense Fund
I think the ballot initiative is going to bring out voters who will vote for a traditional marriage. I think that that is going to make California a competitive state and, if John McCain wins California, Barack Obama will not be president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's what I was going to ask you. We are, of course, in a very heated election campaign. How do you think it plays into that? It hasn't really been much of an issue to this point.

JORDAN LORENCE: This is just my personal opinion, that I think the ballot initiative is going to bring out voters who will vote for a traditional marriage. I think that that is going to make California a competitive state and, if John McCain wins California, Barack Obama will not be president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Kors, what do you think? How does this play out in presidential election campaign?

GEOFFREY KORS: You know, I think there is a motivation from our opponents to have this play out in the presidential election campaign. I don't think it will.

Voters are concerned about the war. They're concerned about our economy. They're concerned about the disastrous eight years of the Bush administration. So I don't think they're focused on this issue.

But I think this will pull out a lot of voters. Young voters, voters who overwhelmingly support Barack Obama, the likely presidential nominee of the Democrats, are also overwhelmingly in support of allowing lesbian and gay couples to marry.

And I don't believe California will be competitive in November. I know that's their goal.

But John McCain has said each state should decide this issue on their own. He opposed the federal marriage amendment that was pushed by our opponents.

So I don't see this as playing out in the way that they're hoping it will. I actually think it plays to our advantage, because the larger the turnout -- and there will be a huge turnout in November -- the better it is for us, because the more people who vote, the more likely that we're going to win in November.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Geoffrey Kors and Jordan Lorence, thank you both very much.

JORDAN LORENCE: Thank you.

GEOFFREY KORS: Thank you.