Calif. ruling could have nationwide impact
SAN FRANCISCO (BP)--For years, conservatives have bemoaned the fact that California is a sort of cultural trend-setter -- setting trends that eventually spread east and reverberate nationally.
It helped spark the sexual revolution, adopted the nation's first no-fault divorce law and helped launch the modern-day "gay rights" movement. And while it has broken ground that both conservatives and liberals can applaud –- it, for instance, was the first to overturn bans on interracial marriage -– few conservatives were celebrating May 15 when the California Supreme Court, by a slim 4-3 margin, ordered the state to legalize "gay marriage."
California's high court isn't the first to hand down such a ruling -– Massachusetts' court owns that distinction –- but its impact has the potential to be far more significant, for at least four reasons: The decision was issued in the nation's most populous state; the court is one of the most, if not the most, influential high courts in the country; the justices placed sexual "orientation" alongside race, sex and religion in protected class status; and, unlike Massachusetts, California has no residency requirements, meaning that same-sex couples from every state can travel to the Golden State, get a marriage license, and then go back to their home state and sue for recognition.
The ruling won't take effect for 30 days –- pro-family groups hope the court will stay its ruling until voters can vote on a constitutional marriage amendment in November -- but that wasn't stopping a jubilant San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and hundreds of homosexuals from celebrating inside city hall.
"As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation," a smiling Newsom said to loud cheers. "[Gay marriage nationwide is] inevitable. This door's wide open now. It's gonna happen, whether you like it or not. This is the future and it's now [in California]."
Homosexuals elsewhere hope Newsom is right. Catherine Andrews-Looper, pastor of Nashville's Holy Trinity Community Church, told The Tennessean newspaper, "It's two states down and 48 more to go." But she conceded, "And that's a long way to go."
California's decision broke a four-court losing streak by "gay marriage" supporters after losses in the past two years in New York, Washington state, Maryland and New Jersey. A decision in Connecticut is due any day, and Iowa's Supreme Court is set to hear a "gay marriage" case this year.
The ruling also means a little-noticed study published last December in the University of California-Davis' Law Review will get more attention. As reported by Adam Liptak in The New York Times, the study showed the California Supreme Court to be the nation's most influential high court. The study examined 65 years of cases and "counted up the number of times the decisions of state high courts were followed in other states."
Although state high courts are not bound by rulings in other state high courts, justices nonetheless read decisions from other states and often cite them. California's court "won by a landslide" in the study, Liptak said.
"In the 65 years ending in 2005, more than 24,000 state high court cases have been followed at least once. California leads with 1,260 decisions," he wrote. "Washington is next, with 942, and Colorado is third, with 848."
Of course, the impact of the decision will be limited if it is overturned by voters in November. A pro-family organization, ProtectMarriage.com, turned in more than 1.1 million signatures in April, far more than the 690,000 needed. Assuming state and county officials say enough signatures are valid, voters this fall will decide whether to reverse the court's ruling. It promises to be the most expensive and heated "gay marriage" battle yet in the short time the nation has debated the issue.
The California court's ruling overturned Proposition 22, a state law banning "gay marriage" that was approved in 2000 by 61 percent of voters.
"It's going to take a monumental effort," Chris Clark, pastor of East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church in San Diego and a ProtectMarriage.com volunteer, told BP. "There's going to need to be a level of cooperation that exceeds even the level of cooperation that we experienced in getting the signatures. People are going to have to put down whatever theological and cultural differences they have and we're going to have to work together to get this passed. Hopefully people are going to see the critical nature of this."
The ruling also could impact the presidential election, as it did on Election Day in 2004, when 11 states passed constitutional marriage amendments -- with Ohio's amendment perhaps lifting President Bush to a victory there. In addition to California, Florida will have an amendment on the ballot this fall, and other states, including Arizona, could follow. The ruling also will result in a greater focus on the role of the federal judiciary.
Although Republican John McCain does not support a federal marriage amendment, in 2006 he did support a proposed constitutional marriage amendment in his home state of Arizona, and even taped a television ad for it. Following the California decision, his campaign released a statement implying he backs the amendment effort in that state.
"John McCain supports the right of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution sanctioning the union between a man and a woman, just as he did in his home state of Arizona," it read. "John McCain doesn't believe judges should be making these decisions."
The two Democrats, though, walked a much finer line, partly because homosexuals make up part of their base.
"Barack Obama has always believed that same-sex couples should enjoy equal rights under the law, and he will continue to fight for civil unions as President," a statement from the Obama campaign said. "He respects the decision of the California Supreme Court, and continues to believe that states should make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of marriage."
Hillary Clinton's campaign released a statement saying she "believes that gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships should have the same rights and responsibilities as all Americans and believes that civil unions are the best way to achieve this goal. As president, Hillary Clinton will work to ensure same-sex couples have access to these rights and responsibilities at the federal level. She has said and continues to believe that the issue of marriage should be left to the states."
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat whose district rests in San Francisco, embraced the ruling. Her statement and position could be used by Republicans running in conservative districts this fall. Pelosi called it "a significant milestone for which all Californians can take pride."
"I welcome the California Supreme Court's historic decision," Pelosi's statement said. "I have long fought against discrimination and believe that the State Constitution provides for equal treatment for all of California's citizens and families, which today's decision recognizes. I commend the plaintiffs from San Francisco for their courage and commitment. I encourage California citizens to respect the Court's decision, and I continue to strongly oppose any ballot measure that would write discrimination into the State Constitution."
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.