The California Assembly voted Tuesday to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, making the state's legislature the first in the nation to deliberately approve same-sex marriages and handing a political hot potato to an already beleaguered Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
After a vehement floor debate in which legislators quoted the Pledge of Allegiance and accused each other of abusing moral principles, the state Assembly passed the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which recasts the definition of marriage as between "two persons," not between a man and a woman. The state Senate passed the bill last week.
"There are moments in the history of any movement when the corner is turned," said Geoff Kors, the executive director of Equality California, a gay rights group. "This is it. This is the tipping point."
Advocates of the bill, including Christine Chavez-Delgado, granddaughter of Cesar Chavez and an organizer of the United Farm Workers of America, and Willie L. Brown, former mayor of San Francisco, argued that the bill fit into California's sense of itself as a trendsetter for the rest of the country. In 1948, California's Supreme Court became the first state court to strike down a law prohibiting interracial marriage. And California in 1976 was among the first states to repeal sodomy statues.
But opponents, including conservative Republicans, have argued that the law must be stopped in the nation's most populous state because it constitutes another assault on the sanctity of the family. Californians passed a defense-of-marriage act defining marriage as between a man and a woman in 2000, and the state, which mixes freewheeling Marin County with culturally conservative Orange County, has emerged as a front line in the battle over the bedroom ever since.
"Marriage should be between a man and a woman, end of story. Next issue," insisted Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia). "It's not about civil rights or personal rights, it's about acceptance. They want to be accepted as normal. They are not normal."
Tuesday's 41 to 35 vote amounted to more difficult news for Schwarzenegger, the Republican actor-turned-politician who roared into Sacramento on the back of a recall election in 2003 promising fundamental change. Schwarzenegger, who has taken on teachers, nurses and other state workers, has seen his popularity lag in recent months. A Field Poll of registered voters early this month put the governor's approval rating at 36 percent -- an all-time low.
If he vetoes the bill, Schwarzenegger will retain the support of his GOP base, which he needs in a special election he has called for November. But he could also alienate many Democrats who voted for him and whose backing he still covets. In the special election, Schwarzenegger is asking voters to grant him more budget-cutting power, to block gerrymandering by placing legislative redistricting in the hands of retired judges and to make public school teachers work five years instead of two before they earn tenure.
"This puts Schwarzenegger on the hot seat," said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at University of California at Berkeley, who predicted the governor would veto the bill. "I think it's a slam-dunk that he's going to have to veto the bill and hope that the anger in the gay community doesn't spill over into other groups."
Other political strategists, however, said Tuesday's vote would force Schwarzenegger to parse his own personal mix of fiscal conservatism and liberal social views. As a former Hollywood star, he hails from a social milieu where gay men and women occupy key positions, and he has spoken glowingly about his friendships with people of all sexual orientations.
"I think the governor's going to be in a difficult position, because during the campaign his positions were ambiguous on the issue," said Arnold Steinberg, a political strategist who generally works with Republicans.
Schwarzenegger supports domestic partnerships but opposes same-sex marriage, a spokesman for the governor said.
The legislature's move goes further than other states, such as Vermont and Connecticut, which have passed legislation allowing more strictly defined "civil unions." And it differs from Massachusetts, the only state to grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples, because the Massachusetts regulations were passed by order of the state's courts, which ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
California is already one of the most gay-friendly states in the nation. Its domestic partnership legislation grants same-sex couples most of the benefits of married couples except a few, such as the right to jointly file income tax returns, the right to bring a foreign partner into the United States and right to pass Social Security benefits on to a spouse. So far, more than 30,000 same-sex couples are registered in California as domestic partners.
The Assembly members were aware that they were making history, and their debate Tuesday night -- to a packed gallery -- focused on whether they should vote their conscience or represent the wishes of their constituents. Slavery, the Bible and the Pledge of Allegiance were wielded by both sides in a piece of political theater rarely seen in Sacramento.
"There are a handful of issues where history will record where we were. This is one of them," said Thomas J. Umberg (D-Anaheim), who had abstained in a vote on the issue in June but voted yes on Tuesday night.
"History will record that you betrayed your constituents and their moral and ethical values," countered Jay LaSuer, his Republican counterpart from La Mesa.
Dignan is a special correspondent; Pomfret reported from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Sonya Geis contributed to this report.