Gay marriage fight isn't over in California, activists vow

Legal challenges ensue in federal court, and plans are afoot for a 2010 ballot measure to undo Proposition 8.

Dan Wood/ The Christian Science Monitor
Tommy Woelfel (r.) and Richard Vaughn with their sons Aidan andAustin Vaugh Woelfel at a gay rights rally in West Hollywood Tuesday. Thecouple married last year.

A day after California's Supreme Court upheld a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriages, gay and lesbian rights groups were plotting the next stage in an uphill battle to sway public opinion on a deeply divisive issue.

Activists are already crafting a new ballot initiative for 2010 to overturn Proposition 8, the voter-approved measure that amended the state's constitution last year to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. And the first legal challenge came Wednesday morning, when Theodore Olson and David Boies – opposing lawyers in the legal battle over the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore – together filed an injunction in federal court calling for the restoration of all same-sex marriages in California.

The injunction follows an earlier suit filed Friday, arguing that a ban on same-sex marriages violates the federal guarantee of equal protection under the US Constitution.

But as Prop. 8 opponents gear up for a fight, supporters of the ban are ready to defend the measure. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, they are planning a multimillion-dollar campaign to ensure marriage remains limited to a man and a woman in California.

"The will of the voters is under attack once again," said Andrew Pugno of the pro-Prop. 8, in a statement about the the new federal lawsuit. The injunction has little chance of succeeding, but they would "provide a vigorous defense of Prop 8, just as we did in the California courts."

On Tuesday, the court rejected the argument that Prop. 8 was an unconstitutional violation of the state's equal protection clause. At the same time, it preserved 18,000 gay marriages that took place before Prop. 8 passed last November with 52 percent of the vote.

In the year ahead, the battle over same-sex marriage is likely to play out on the airwaves, in the streets, in courtrooms, and churches.

While public acceptance of gay marriage is growing, advocates admit the chances of undoing Prop. 8 in the near future are slim.

"There is no one who is sanguine about how daunting that task will be," says Kate Kendell, executive director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. "It will require a level of engagement and tenacity that is unprecedented" to overturn Prop. 8, she says.

Reaching out to conservative voters

It also means taking their message beyond California's liberal enclaves, such as San Francisco where the gay community is deeply rooted, to the conservative Central Valley and going door to door in communities where residents put "Yes on 8" signs in their front yards.

On Saturday, gay rights activists plan to march through the central California city in the unofficial start of their campaign to take their message to parts of the state that favored the gay-marriage ban.

There are many lessons from the failed campaign against Prop. 8, says Molly McKay, media director for Marriage Equality USA, a leading advocacy group for same-sex marriage.

Chiefly, gay rights leaders now recognize they need to reach out to religious leaders to help make their case, she says. "For any civil rights journey, you have to have deep spiritual roots to reach out to people to share your common humanity … especially on a topic where people think they know all that there is to know," she says, adding that there are "leaders of faith who support marriage equality."

For same-sex married couples like John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, the court's ruling is something of a call to action.

"The ruling really gives us our marching orders," says Mr. Gaffney, whose marriage to Mr. Lewis was one of the 18,000 validated in Tuesday's ruling. "This decision just reinforces for us that equality is an unfinished business in California. And that divides Californians into marriage haves and have-nots," he says.

Marriage: just a word?

Last year, California's Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages and afforded married gay couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples. While this week's decision may seem like a reversal to many, according to the court, Prop. 8 only applies to the term "marriage" and does not take away any of the legal rights associated with marriage.

"Certainly, this is a court that struggled mightily. This is a court that attempted to walk a line … in satisfying the will of the majority," says Ms. Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Although the court said gay couples were losing only the nomenclature of marriage, Kendell and other gay rights activists say the term "marriage" has a symbolic meaning that goes beyond words. "I'd like to walk down the street and ask 10 heterosexual couples if they would cease referring to themselves as married, or cease referring to themselves as spouse, or husband, or wife to their families, their friends, and the world," she says."Marriage is the common vernacular to understanding what two people mean to each other."

That may not convince Prop. 8 supporters such as Pepperdine University law Prof. Doug Kmiec. He says marriage is a religious tradition, and most churches do not believe that same-sex couples should be wed. The principal reason he supported Prop. 8, he says, was to return the institution of marriage to the church and not make it a matter of public policy.

Religious gay couples disagree."It's more of an equality issue than a religious issue or civil rights issue," said Tommy Woelfel, who was married last summer after the court legalized same-sex marriages, at a Los Angeles rally Tuesday. "I am Christian and believe in the sanctity of marriage, and rights that are given to a heterosexual couple should also be given to a loving, committed, homosexual couple." [Editor's note: The original version misattributed this quote.]

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