Will California Ban Gay Marriage?
posted by Josh Goodman
Yesterday's ruling by the California Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage was historic. In six months, it could be history.
That's because California is likely to vote this fall on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Supporters of the measure submitted 1.1 million signatures to the Secretary of State (they only needed about 700,000) and are awaiting confirmation that gay marriage will appear on the November ballot.
There are some good reasons to think the amendment will pass. In 2000, Californians gave 61% of the vote to an initiative to prohibit gay marriage -- that's the law that the court overturned yesterday. The new proposal is for a constitutional amendment, while the 2000 vote was on a mere statute, but voters probably won't think too much about that distinction.
What's more, gay marriage opponents have a near-perfect record in these fights. When states' electorates have voted on constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage, 26 out of 27 times they have passed. The only one that didn't was in Arizona, where the amendment also would have forbidden civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Of course, conservative states have been more likely to hold votes on gay marriage than liberal ones. But some fairly Democratic states, including Oregon, Wisconsin and Michigan, have approved gay marriage bans.
Plus, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the court's decision ends up helping the amendment pass. Voters who are ambivalent on gay marriage might be pushed to support the amendment, if they believe the judiciary overstepped its bounds. (For that reason and others, I argued a couple of months ago that the gay rights movement might have been better off losing the California Supreme Court case.)
That said, there are also good reasons to think the amendment might fail, allowing gay marriage to continue.
Since that 2000 vote, sentiment in California has clearly shifted in favor of gay rights (it's also shifted nationwide to a greater or lesser extent depending on the state). Polls conducted in the past few years typically have shown that half or slightly less than half of Californians favor gay marriage. However, no one to my knowledge has conducted a poll this year on the topic.
The campaign against the amendment will also have bipartisan support. Most Democratic officeholders favor gay marriage, which is why the legislature twice sent Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger bills to allow same-sex couples to wed.
Schwarzenegger vetoed those bills (saying he was deferring to the court), but he has also pledged to oppose the constitutional ban, deeming it a "total waste of time." Ancillary question: Will this campaign further damage Schwarzenegger's standing with conservatives in his own party?
There's also a chance that the court's ruling, rather than galvanizing support for the ban, could actually work against it. Same-sex couples will be able to begin exchanging vows in a matter of weeks, meaning that voters would be overturning marriages that have already taken place. They may be squeamish about that.
If I had to guess, I'd say that the amendment fails and gay marriage stays on the books, but that's more of a hunch than anything else. I wouldn't put any money on it. That uncertainty -- combined with the implications for the presidential race, Schwarzenegger's legacy and the national gay rights movement -- should make the campaign fascinating to watch.