Thursday, September 2, 1999
Get ready. The war over gay marriage is about to come screaming back into the spotlight, courtesy of a voter initiative on the March 2000 primary ballot that would bar the state of California from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states. But here''s a news flash: gay marriage isn''t formally recognized by any state. Technically, same-sex nuptials are illegal everywhere in the United States--including California. So then, what''s the point of the so-called Defense of Marriage Initiative? Depends on whom you ask. Proponents say the constitutional amendment must pass to protect the institution of marriage and society itself. They maintain that court challenges to marriage laws in Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont--three states where gays have sued for the right to marry--are part of an organized effort to achieve recognition of gay marriage throughout the nation. "California should retain its right to define marriage in the way that it sees fit," says Andy Pugno, chief of staff for state Sen. William "Pete" Knight, the Republican from Palmdale who authored the initiative. "It should not be redefined by a group of activists out there shopping around for a liberal judge." Opponents--including a group of local residents who''ve formed the Monterey County Coalition for Fairness to fight the initiative--say the proposal is an attempt to further disenfranchise the gay community. Further, they claim it''s merely a device to scapegoat gays and lesbians and draw conservative voters to the polls in an important presidential primary. "The Knight initiative is divisive, unfair and intrusive," says Coalition for Fairness Chair Matt Friday. "It isn''t talking about gay marriages, because those are already illegal...It''s clear that this law is not about any current situation, so what''s going on must have other motivations. I fear some of those motivations include taking advantage of people''s ignorance and turning a certain class of people into second-class citizens." The Knight initiative itself is deceptively simple. It contains only 14 words--"Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California"--that, if the voters approve, would be added as an amendment to the state Constitution. The initiative so far appears to have strong support. The results of a December poll by the Public Policy Institute showed 64 percent supporting the initiative with only 3 percent undecided. (Conversely, Californians appear to strongly endorse proposals to offer domestic-partner benefits for both straight and gay couples.) Findings of the early poll nearly mirror the results of elections in Alaska and Hawaii, where voters last November passed constitutional amendments against same-sex marriages by 2-to-1 margins. The Hawaii initiative was prompted by that state''s Supreme Court''s ruling that gay couples were unconstitutionally being denied marriage licenses. As a result of the state''s 2-1 vote, the original court case is all but moot. Supporters of the Knight initiative say a similar but still-pending court case in Vermont presents a "clear and present danger" that, under the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution, California might be forced to recognize gay marriages performed in Vermont. In Baker v. Vermont, three same-sex couples sued the state for denying them marriage licenses. The case was dismissed in 1998 by a superior court, but has since been appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, which has yet to issue its ruling. (Same-sex marriages are recognized, however, in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario.) Earlier this decade, it seemed as if the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. was inevitable. Then, President Clinton signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. The act, called DOMA, denied recognition of same-sex marriages and provided that any state could refuse to recognize such unions performed in any other state. There followed a general backlash throughout the nation against gay marriage. Thirty states have since adopted measures that prohibit the recognition of same-sex unions. In California, Defense of Marriage legislation sponsored by Knight has twice failed. Now Knight is back, this time appealing directly to the voters. "The definition of marriage and the family unit has served society well for thousands of years," Knight says. "I don''t believe we should change that definition." But Friday and others say there is no conspiracy to legalize gay marriage in California--which makes the Knight initiative all the more suspect. "The only person out there with a gay agenda is Pete Knight," says Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, an openly gay Democratic legislator from Encino. Kuehl maintains the measure is merely an attempt for Knight to win political recognition. Friday fears that political recognition will translate into an attack on gays and lesbians. A "no" vote on the Knight initiative will not suddenly allow gays and lesbians to marry freely, he says. A "yes" vote, on the other hand, "will make a certain group totally ineligible for rights other groups take for granted." "This initiative is really about classifying a certain group of people as being suitable for unequal treatment," he says. "It''s saying it''s fine to isolate them as a group of people who should not be eligible to the same rights that other people take for granted." The rights of married couples transcend those granted under domestic-partner laws, which usually only extend health insurance and other employment benefits to partners, Friday says. Those rights include tax breaks, property inheritance rights, Social Security payments, and even something as simple as hospital visitation rights. "If gays and lesbians are not allowed to marry, those rights are withheld from them, period," Friday says. "It doesn''t make any sense to me that any group not be allowed these rights." For more information or to volunteer with the Monterey County Coalition for Fairness, contact Matt Friday at 899-2263.