California votes down same-sex marriage

Voters in Florida and Arizona also approved similar bans in a setback for the gay rights movement.

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    Volunteer Antonio Prieto installed a 'Yes on 8' proposition yard sign at a home in East Los Angeles, California on Oct. 31. A majority of Californian people voted for the gay marriage ban on election day.
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California voters spoke Tuesday: Same-sex couples will no longer be permitted to legally marry in the Golden State.

With 95 percent of the vote counted Wednesday morning, a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage headed for a narrow victory. It’s a public repudiation of a landmark state court ruling in May that found same-sex couples have a right to marry.

Voters in Florida and Arizona also approved constitutional bans on gay marriage on Tuesday. Just two years earlier, Arizona was the first state to defeat a gay marriage ban at the ballot box.

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In the short-term, the ballot results this year represent a setback in the momentum that had been building for same-sex marriage. Opponents can now argue more vigorously that courts are trying to force a social change that’s too radical in the eyes of the public.

“In general, whenever a gay rights issue gets hot and gets a lot of political attention, support for gay rights drops,” says Gregory Lewis, a Georgia State University professor who has studied voter attitudes on gay marriage. “It’s not surprising that once Prop 8 started generating some real buzz, apparently, there was a drop in support for same-sex marriage.”

Buzz is an understatement. Proposition 8 became an all-out blitzkrieg in the culture war. Some $74 million poured into the campaigns, a national record for a social policy referendum.

The fight drew in Catholic bishops and Utah-based Mormons, Hollywood celebrities and high-tech titans like Google founder Sergey Brin. Even San Francisco 49er legend Steve Young fielded questions when his wife put up a “No on 8” yard sign.

An estimated 18,000 same-sex couples have already married in California. Legal scholars suggest these marriages would continue to be recognized despite Tuesday’s vote.

“It’s a matter of some dispute. My own judgment would be that they are perfectly valid,” says Doug Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University and opponent of gay marriage.

Mr. Kmiec says it’s too early to tell what finally persuaded voters, but he suspects concerns that same-sex marriage would be “taught as commonplace in school materials” was influential for some.

Campaign advertising first raised the concern, which was then illustrated further when public school first-graders were bused on a field trip to their lesbian teacher’s wedding at San Francisco’s city hall last month.

“If gay marriage is just about what Adam and Steve do in their private life, that’s one thing,” says Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, an advocacy group for traditional marriage. “But it’s also about what we are going to have to teach and affirm to our children.”

The “No on Prop. 8” campaign argued vehemently against the notion that the measure would have any impact either way on schools. They pointed to state Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell, who said, “our schools aren’t required to teach anything about marriage.”

Supporters of same-sex marriage may have been hurt by the enthusiastic turnout among African-Americans for president-elect Barack Obama. CNN exit polls found black voters affirming Proposition 8 by a 70-to-30 margin. Whites and Latinos, however, were nearly evenly split.

“African-Americans are less supportive of same-sex marriage and more uncomfortable with the whole idea of gay rights than are whites,” says Patrick Egan, a New York University professor of politics who has studied the issue. However, in previous years, exit polling found blacks no more likely than whites to vote for same-sex marriage bans, suggesting a reticence to take away rights.

In the long-run, young voters may prove to be the most important, says Dr. Egan, a supporter of same-sex marriage. Young voters are currently far more supportive of gay marriage. Those under 30 voted 66 to 34 against Proposition 8 in CNN’s exit polls.

“By all appearances, generational shifts in public opinion are going to mean that in 20 to 30 years from now, majorities will feel completely comfortable with same-sex marriage,” says Egan.

For the time being, the battle over Proposition 8 will leave some scars. That’s certainly true for those in the gay community who will no longer be able to marry, and who speak passionately about their sense of injustice at having their rights put to popular vote.

But one prominent organization that had entered the fray in support of Proposition 8 hasn’t escaped unscathed either. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) agreed to join a coalition that included other religious groups to advocate for the ban. Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City sent a letter in June asking church members in California to work for its passage.

While the Church was just one of many organizations, the enthusiasm of its members elevated the prominence of its support.

“They ... became the focus of the opposition’s ire because of their effectiveness and prominence on this issue,” says Kirk Jowers, head of the Hinckley Institute for Politics at the University of Utah.

Reports surfaced in Utah newspapers that LDS members were growing uncomfortable with the church’s role in the California fight. Among them is Nadine Hansen whose website, mormonsfor8.com, tracks Mormon donations in support of Proposition 8. The site has identified more than $14 million given by individual Mormons.

“I think that it’s been divisive and I think it’s brought them a lot of bad publicity. And I don’t think it’s a very good idea to be on the side of taking away somebody’s rights,” says Ms. Hansen.

The church ultimately withdrew its support from having members outside California make campaign phone calls into the state. Subsequently, it also decried a “No on Prop. 8” TV advertisement that depicted two Mormon missionaries ransacking the home of a lesbian couple and ripping up their marriage license.

“The Church has joined a broad-based coalition in defense of traditional marriage. While we feel this is important to all of society, we have always emphasized that respect be given to those who feel differently on this issue. It is unfortunate that some who oppose this proposition have not given the Church this same courtesy,” read a church statement.

The founder of the group behind the ad defended it.

“If the Mormon church had not given instructions literally to fight this and put up money, we wouldn’t have a close election,” says Rick Jacobs, the chair of Courage Campaign, which aired the ad Tuesday in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “I think they need to explain why they want to impose their theology on the voters here.”

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