In a decision with enormous
legal, political, and religious implications, a federal judge on Aug. 4 struck
down California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
Chief U.S. District Judge
Vaughn Walker’s watershed decision marks the first time a federal judge has declared
a state gay marriage ban unconstitutional.
In a 138-page decision,
Walker ruled that “moral and religious views” are not a “rational basis” for
the state to deny same-sex couples equal marriage rights.
Walker concluded that
Proposition 8, California’s voter referendum that outlawed gay marriage in
2008, violates the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian couples.
“Proposition 8 fails to
advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a
marriage license,” Walker said.
“Indeed, the evidence shows
Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution
the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.”
Walker’s ruling is expected
to be appealed, and the lawsuit, brought by two same-sex couples and the city
of San Francisco, could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Including California, 29
state constitutions bar same-sex marriage.
Twelve additional states
have laws restricting marriage to one man and one woman; same-sex marriage is
legal in five states and the District of Columbia.
While Walker’s ruling
technically applies to California, it will have wider implications as the case
moves up the federal judicial ladder — a fact ruefully acknowledged by
Tony Perkins, president of
the conservative Family Research Council, warned that “this lawsuit, should it
be upheld on appeal and in the Supreme Court, would become the ‘Roe v. Wade’ of
same-sex marriage, overturning the marriage laws of 45 states.”
Even before the decision was
made public, the religious and conservative groups that pushed for Proposition
8 asked for a stay of Walker’s ruling and vowed to appeal it.
The case pitted same-sex
couples, who argued that gay marriage ban violated their constitutional rights
to equal protection, against religious groups and conservatives who countered
that the traditional definition of marriage — and the votes of 7 million
Californians who favored the ban — should stand.
California voters supported
Prop 8 by a margin of 52-48 percent in 2008, just five months after the state’s
Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.
Walker said the plaintiffs
offered “overwhelming evidence” the gay marriage ban violates their rights to
due process and equal protection under the law. He also noted California issued
18,000 marriage licenses to gay couples in the five months gay marriage was
legal and “has not suffered any demonstrated harm as a result.”
Religious groups — including
the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints —
used their political influence and deep pockets to push for Prop 8. Mormons
donated an estimated $22 million to the cause, and church headquarters were
fined $5,000 by California officials for failing to declare non-monetary
“The evidence shows
conclusively that moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief
that same-sex couples are different from opposite-sex couples,” Walker writes
in his decision. “The evidence fatally undermines any purported state interest
in treating couples differently; thus, these interests do not provide a
rational basis for supporting Proposition 8.
lamented Wednesday’s ruling. “Traditional Jewish values recognize marriage as
being only between a man and woman,” said the Union of Orthodox Jewish
Congregations of America in a statement.
“In addition to our
religious values — which we do not seek to impose on anyone — we fear legal
recognition of same-sex marriage poses a grave threat to the fundamental civil
right of religious freedom.”
But a recent poll sponsored
by advocates for gay equality suggests public opinion in California has shifted
in favor of allowing same-sex couples to wed.
Just 22 percent of
Californians believe passing Prop 8 was a good thing for the state, according
to a poll conducted in June by Public Religion Research Institute, a
non-partisan organization based in Washington.
A slight majority — 51
percent — said they would vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry if
another vote were held. The poll was sponsored by the Evelyn & Walter Haas,
Jr. Fund, to “survey California religious communities and help develop
religious education strategies supporting gay equality.”
Support for expanding the
definition of marriage remains tepid nationwide, though, with just 39 percent
of Americans saying gay marriage should be legal, according to a joint poll
conducted in April by CBS News and The New York Times.
But gay rights advocates
appear to be on a winning streak, after a federal judge in Boston last month
struck down part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that
defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and enables states not
to recognize same-sex relationships as marriages.