Why momentous Prop. 8 ruling might not satisfy gay-rights groups
A federal court overturned Prop. 8, California's ban on gay marriage, but the ruling did not affirm a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage, as gay-rights groups had hoped.
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In the meantime, during a 143-day period in 2008, between the state supreme court’s ruling and passage of Prop. 8, an estimated 18,000 gay and lesbian couples wed.Skip to next paragraph
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A gay couple and a lesbian couple filed a civil-rights lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco, claiming Prop. 8 violated equal protection and due process rights guaranteed under the US Constitution.
US District Judge Vaughn Walker conducted a 12-day trial in January 2010. He announced his decision in August 2010.
The judge ruled that California had no justification to limit its definition of marriage to a man and a woman while offering identical rights to same-sex couples under domestic partnerships.
Judge Walker invalidated the state constitutional amendment and permanently enjoined California officials from excluding same-sex couples from marriage in the state. The decision was hailed as a landmark for gay rights.
Supporters of Prop. 8 appealed Walker’s decision, arguing that the federal judge ignored binding US Supreme Court and appeals court precedents that the traditional man-woman definition of marriage does not violate the US Constitution.
How Judge Reinhardt ruled
In his decision, Judge Reinhardt cited a 1996 US Supreme Court case, called Romer v. Evans. The high court struck down a Colorado law that sought to strip gay and lesbian residents of antidiscrimination protections enacted by local governments. The majority justices said the effort to target a disfavored class and deprive them of rights they had already enjoyed violated constitutional protections.
Reinhardt said Prop. 8 did the same thing to same-sex couples in California who had enjoyed a 143-day window in which they were free to marry on the same terms as heterosexual couples.
That brief window in effect grandfathered them in for constitutional purposes, the judge said.
He noted that Prop. 8 proponents said the ballot initiative merely restored the traditional definition of marriage and left undisturbed all other legal rights enjoyed by gay couples.
But Reinhardt said formal designations matter. “Marriage is the name that society gives to the relationship that matters most between two adults,” he said.
“A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but to the couple desiring to enter into a committed lifelong relationship, a marriage by the name of ‘registered domestic partnership’ does not,” he said.
The judge also quoted Frank Sinatra: “A man doesn’t know what happiness is until he’s married. By then it’s too late.”
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