The battle over gay marriage in California has been epic, dramatic, and downright confusing. On the issue of whether same-sex couples can legally get married, there have been so many twists and turns, votes and court cases, that it’s gotten pretty hard to keep track of just where things stand … and what lies ahead.
The Most Recent Decision
Last week, a federal court in San Francisco ruled that Proposition 8 – a statewide ban on same-sex marriage passed by California voters in 2008 – was unconstitutional. In a 2-1 decision, the three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban denied civil rights protections for gay and lesbian couples in California, determining that Proposition 8 was a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause (in the Fourteenth Amendment).
“All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation ‘marriage,”’ wrote Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt in the decision. “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gay men and lesbians in California.”
The court’s ruling actually upheld a decision made two years earlier by a lower court judge (Judge Vaughn Walker), who also ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional, but for a different reason. Whereas Judge Walker said that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry, the judges in last week’s decision focused exclusively on the difference in the way married couples and domestic partners are treated as a result of the ban. Pretty confusing, right?
What Proposition 8 did
In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 8 by 52 percent to 48 percent. Labeled by supporters as the California Marriage Protection Act, the measure added a provision to California’s Constitution that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." The measure successfully overturned a State Supreme Court ruling from earlier the same year that opened the doors for same-sex couples to marry (and resulted in thousands of couples rushing to get marriage licenses while they could).
Proponents of same-sex marriage argue that the freedom to marry is a fundamental right in American society that should extend to everyone, regardless of sexual preference. Opponents argue that marriage is a cherished institution that should be exclusively reserved for heterosexual couples. Allowing same-sex couples to marry, they argue, will fundamentally change and weaken that institution.