California’s shame

Equal marriage rights suffers a setback, but there is hope. Plus, young voters.
By EDITORIAL  |  November 24, 2008

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The politics of division as practiced by lame-duck president George W. Bush at the connivance of his onetime Svengali Karl Rove are not dead.

Democrat Barack Obama’s decisive national victory over Republican John McCain certainly dealt a body blow to those who would pit whites against nonwhites, the native born against immigrants, the haves against the have-nots, and those who practice their fundamental right to worship as they choose against those who exercise their equally constitutional right not to worship at all.

But anyone who doubts that the politics of intolerance and inhumanity are alive and well need only to look to California, Florida, and Arizona, which voted to deny same-sex couples the basic human right to marry that couples of differing genders enjoy. The Taliban would be proud.

The situation in Arkansas is even more dispiriting. Voters in that state went so far as to mandate that only married couples can adopt children or serve as foster parents. Since heterosexual unions are the only couplings recognized in Arkansas, voters removed the possibility that straight singles could adopt in order to bar gays and lesbians from becoming parents or guardians. Pity the children.

While the same-sex-marriage bans in Arizona and Florida (the latter, for good measure, also outlawed civil unions) undeniably hinder the just cause of civil rights, the vote in California was most significant.

In May, the Republican-dominated California Supreme Court issued a ringing declaration establishing that couples of the same gender had the equal right to marry as those of differing genders. “An individual’s sexual orientation — like a person’s race or gender — does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights,” the court ruled.

California voters thought otherwise. Although the state went overwhelmingly for Obama, voters allowed the state constitution to be amended in order to outlaw marriage for gay and lesbian couples. In a predominately multicultural state like California, it is difficult to pinpoint the constituent groups responsible for the defeat. But the effect of African-Americans who approved the ban by a margin of more than 70 percent is difficult to deny.

The irony, of course, is bitter. The same day that a black American was elected president for the first time, his fellow citizens denied the dignity of marriage to same-sex couples. What a country.

Equally undeniable was the opposition of religious groups to same-sex marriage. The Mormon-led movement was joined by Catholics and Evangelicals Protestants who decided that the teaching of Jesus Christ to love your neighbor as yourself need not apply in California — or, by extension, to the rest of the nation.

Thanks to these holy rollers, California enjoys the dubious distinction of rescinding a set of rights for the first time in American history. And make no mistake, marriage is a bundle of rights that encompasses more than a formalized recognition of love and affection. Marriage rights extend to a host of issues that include property, a couple’s mutual well-being, inheritances, and, in case of critical illness, perhaps even life or death.

(In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act, assuring that same-sex couples would remain ineligible for spousal benefits under Social Security, Medicare, or any other federal benefit program reserved for married couples, irrespective of individual states’ allowing gay marriage. In order to assure those rights nationally for same-sex couples, that law would still need to be taken off the books or overturned by the Supreme Court.)

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