By Joe Dignan and Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 2, 2005
SACRAMENTO, Sept. 1 -- The California Senate voted Thursday to allow gay couples to wed, becoming the first legislative body in the nation to approve same-sex marriage without a court order.
The bill would recast the state's legal definition of marriage as a union between two people rather than one between a man and a woman.
Yet it faces an uncertain future: The California Assembly narrowly rejected similar legislation in June, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has given mixed or ambiguous responses on whether he would support or veto such a bill.
Still, its passage, on a vote of 21 to 15, was hailed by advocates as a breakthrough for gay rights.
"It will totally take away the argument that it is just 'activist judges' who are finding for marriage nondiscrimination," said Geoff Kors, the head of Equality California. "It's the people's representatives in the largest state in the nation doing this."
Opponents deemed it an "arrogant" move in defiance of a voter-approved law limiting marriage rights to male-female couples. "Twenty-one Democrats in the Senate took it upon themselves to redefine marriage," said Benjamin Lopez, a lobbyist for the Traditional Values Coalition, "and they're saying that 4.6 million Californians are wrong."
The vote is distinct from those in such states as Connecticut and Vermont, which more narrowly crafted the right to "civil unions" for same-sex couples while reserving the word "marriage" for heterosexuals. Massachusetts this year became the only state to grant full marriage rights to gay or lesbian couples, but only after the state's courts ruled bans on such unions unconstitutional.
California has emerged as a key battleground in the debate over same-sex marriage. In 2000, the state's voters approved the referendum defining marriage as a union between two members of the opposite sex. But early last year, San Francisco officials issued marriage licenses to more than 4,000 gay couples, arguing that state law banning such unions violated the state's constitution.
The state Supreme Court nullified those unions, citing state law. In March, a San Francisco judge hearing lawsuits from activists and city officials declared the law unconstitutional, setting up a battle that will eventually be heard again in the state's highest court.
In the state capital Thursday, an emotional debate erupted, with proponents calling same-sex marriage a civil rights issue. Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) likened arguments in favor of the state's current marriage laws to those used to intern Japanese Americans during World War II and to justify slavery. "History has shown that that was wrong," she said.
Republican opponents said marriage between a man and a woman is a building block of society, and argued that the institution was created by God.
A "higher power created the institution of marriage," said Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-San Diego). "We should protect traditional marriage, and we should uphold all of those values and institutions that . . . keep our society together today."
Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) said that "marriage is fundamentally different from a civil contract. It's the way we bring new life into the world." He called it a "natural institution," which "we've done a lot to undermine."
Sen. Martha M. Escutia (D-Montebello) responded: "My higher power tells me: Love one another . . . When you look at the Judeo-Christian principles, the main principles have been equality and tolerance."
Lawmakers said the issue had generated more attention than any other this session. "I've had 4,000 calls," Ortiz said.
Margita Thompson, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, said the governor believes "the issue should be decided by the ballot box or the courts," and would not comment on whether he would sign or veto the bill if it passes.
Thompson made a point of saying that the issue "has been decided by the people." But she added that the governor "will uphold whatever the court decides."
She said that "the governor does not believe in gay marriages, but he supports the current domestic partnership laws." Those in California grant gay couples many of the same privileges as married heterosexuals except the right to file taxes together.
First, though, the bill will likely move to the Assembly next week. A similar version was defeated by the larger legislative body in June, by a 41 to 37 vote, but its sponsor believes it may fare better this time.
Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) noted that in recent months, Canada and Spain have adopted same-sex marriage. The United Farm Workers endorsed the bill, as did Los Angeles's new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.
"This is not radical. This is not vanguard," Leno said. "We're part of something bigger than ourselves now."
Argetsinger reported from Los Angeles.