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CALIFORNIA BEGINS HISTORIC SAME-SEX MARRIAGES

by Bill Berkowitz

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(IPS) -- On the evening of June 16, 2008, with all the Bay Area local television stations and some of the national news networks on hand, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, two longtime gay rights activists, (re)married at City Hall in San Francisco, California.

Martin and Lyon, who have been together for more than five decades, were given the honour -- as they were four years ago when they were first married (a marriage subsequently declared illegitimate by the state) -- of being the first of thousands of gay couples that are expected to come to San Francisco and other cities across the state to exchange wedding vows.

"I never could understand why I could get married and she couldn't," Lyon's sister, Patricia, told reporters after the ceremony. "I'm so happy to be here today, to see them have their chance."

The nuptial blitz is a direct result of three recent decisions -- two by the California supreme court and one by California's secretary of state. On May 15, the court ruled by a 4-3 margin in favour of same-sex marriage, overturning an eight-year-old ballot initiative that defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

On June 3, Secretary of State Debra Bowen affirmed that the "Protect Marriage Amendment" -- which would amend the state constitution to guarantee that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California" -- had qualified for the Nov. 4 ballot. Finally, on June 4, despite pleas from conservative legal organizations to stay its decision until after the November election, the supreme court declared that gay couples could marry after 5 p.m. on Monday.


Unlike Massachusetts, the only other state to allow same-sex marriages, California will not require marriage license applicants to be state residents. However, when gay and lesbian couples from other states marry in California, they will return home to decidedly different circumstances.

Many couples will return to states which have voted to specifically reject same-sex unions. Others, such as New York State residents, will return to a state that recently decided to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages. In New Jersey, same-sex couples married in California, Massachusetts or Canada will be recognized at the level of civil unions, a status that same-sex couples in that state are eligible for.

While some county clerks in California were ready, and in many cases, eager to move forward, not all county clerks were as sanguine. Conservative legal organizations, including the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund and the California-based United States Justice Foundation, encouraged -- and offered legal representation if necessary -- county clerks not to conduct wedding ceremonies after June 17.

The Butte County clerk-recorder issued a June 11 news release saying her office will stop performing wedding ceremonies altogether -- for gay or heterosexual couples -- and the Kern County clerk issued a June 4 release saying that she would do the same. According to news reports, both counties will continue to issue marriage licenses.

Still, for gay and lesbian couples, the legal victories were the fruit of a decades-long struggle -- the first lawsuit by same-sex couples seeking marriage rights was filed by two men in Minnesota who were denied a marriage license in 1970.

For groups on the Religious Right, the decision was another example of so-called "judicial activism" run wild.

While the wedding industry has ramped up in order to harvest millions of dollars from what is expected to be thousands of in-state and out-of-state couples getting married, gays and lesbians are not only celebrating the marriages of friends and families, they are also gearing up for November's showdown over same-sex marriage.

For conservative Christian evangelicals, the battle over the November initiative will not only be an opportunity to strike down the supreme court's decision, but it is also being viewed as a vehicle for consolidating and re-invigorating its troops.

Four years ago, many observers believe, Bush received a huge conservative voter turnout boost from a series of anti-same-sex marriage initiatives -- particularly in the swing state of Ohio which Bush won -- that appeared on the ballots of, and were victorious in, more than a dozen states.

This time around, California is the only major state in play.

ProtectMarriage.com, which easily exceeded the number of signatures it needed to get the initiative on the November ballot, is a project of California Renewal, and is chaired by Ron Prentice, who is also executive director of the California Family Council. The group claims that it is a "broad-based coalition of organizations, churches, and individuals who believe that marriage's foremost purpose is the raising of healthy children in a family with a mom and a dad."

In early June, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, Washington's most prominent Christian conservative lobbying group, sent a letter to supporters headlined "Please Help Negate Court's Same-Sex 'Marriage' Ruling," and asked for donations to FRC's "Marriage Emergency Campaign," because "traditional marriages across America is now in grave peril."

While wedding bells are ringing across the state of California, 52 House members mostly Democrats, with a smattering of Republicans -- have joined together to form the House Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus.

No matter what happens in November, representatives from both sides of the issue agree that the battle over same-sex marriage will be one of the most expensive in the history of California initiatives, and that it will not end there.

If the ballot initiative fails, it could come up again on a future ballot. In addition, failure would likely spur more anti-same-sex marriage initiatives in the states that have not yet considered them. Ultimately, however, the decision over same-sex marriages may end up in Washington at the doorstep of the United States Supreme Court.



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Albion Monitor   June 17, 2008   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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