President Barack Obama's decision to support gay marriage marks a significant shift not only in American politics but perhaps in American culture as well -- a shift on which California has been on the cutting edge.
As the first U.S. president to take such a stance, Obama is wading deeper into a significant cultural divide that the Golden State has helped shape and define.
"He said, 'These are important people, they're my friends, I honor their relationships and I'm going to speak out,' " said the Rev. Jane Spahr, 69, of San Francisco, who next week will learn what penalty she faces for defying Presbyterian law by marrying same-sex couples in 2008 while it was briefly legal to do so in California.
The debate over gay marriage in California kicked off in earnest with then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in early 2004. Newsom's decision was reversed by the state Supreme Court, and a legal battle ensued.
The next year, the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a bill allowing gay marriage, but Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. In 2008, it became legal as the result of a state Supreme Court decision, but that same year California voters narrowly approved Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The legal battle over the initiative is still raging.
But things might be different in California if voters were to weigh in on the
issue today. A Field Poll conducted in February found voter approval of same-sex marriage at 59 percent -- the highest level ever recorded in that company's 35 years of polling on the issue. That represents a reversal from the 59 percent disapproval rate recorded in 1977.
But that road has been painstakingly slow -- and paved with a lot of public debate and private soul-searching.
Alberto Torrico was a freshman Democratic Assembly member from Newark in 2005 when faced with the bill allowing same-sex couples to marry.
As a civil-rights lawyer, he opposed discrimination. But as a born-again Christian, he opposed changing a sacred institution.
He abstained from the first vote, but after heavy lobbying by both sides and some time spent in prayer, he voted for the bill, which eventually was vetoed by Schwarzenegger.
"It's a personal issue: You weigh your personal beliefs against the power of the state, what you think the role of the state is," Torrico, now a member of the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, said Wednesday. "I feel I did the right thing. ... It shouldn't be up to the government to decide who should and should not get married. I'm comfortable with that. I'm at peace with that now."
Republican Arne Simonsen, 65, a former Antioch councilman, feels no such peace.
"People can do whatever they want as long as they are not putting it in my face -- and they just put it in my face," Simonsen said. "I think it's a political ploy by President Obama, and it will not sit well with conservative Democrats ... or conservatives across the country. It's counter to what 29 states determined by voting -- that marriage is between a man and a woman. I'm not very religious, but marriage is about procreation."
Michele Sundstrom, of San Jose, also opposes same-sex marriage and worries that Obama's support of it will "open a Pandora's box" of unintended consequences, such as forcing people -- in the name of equality -- to compromise their religious beliefs.
Sundstrom, 50, also fears free-speech rights will be compromised if marriage is redefined because opinion will be put in the category of "hate speech."
When she and her husband hung a "Protect Marriage" banner in front of their house during the Proposition 8 campaign, a lesbian couple parked their car in front with slogans on the windows saying, "Bigots live here."
The president's endorsement of same-sex marriage rights was foreshadowed in the position his administration took last year in a San Francisco legal challenge to the federal ban on gay marriage.
In that case, the Obama administration for the first time abandoned its legal defense of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, determining that it is unconstitutional because it denies gay and lesbian couples the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples. Justice Department lawyers urged San Francisco U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White to strike down the law.
White in February agreed with the administration, declaring DOMA unconstitutional and ordering the federal government to provide health benefits to the wife of a lesbian federal court employee.
The administration has remained aggressive in recent months defending that employee's position in the courts against a group of House Republicans who have appealed White's ruling to the 9th Circuit. Hoping to push the legal challenge forward as quickly as possible, the Justice Department in March asked the 9th Circuit to skip hearing the case with a three-judge panel and move immediately to the next stage and consider the DOMA issue with an 11-judge panel.
Administration lawyers called the case "a constitutional question of exceptional importance and urgency."
The California case may be one of several around the country that could force the U.S. Supreme Court to address the same-sex marriage question, and the next election may determine if the justices will hear the issue with a president who supports gay marriage rights. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is the lead author of a bill to repeal DOMA.
The administration has not weighed in directly on the ongoing legal challenge to Proposition 8. A divided three-judge 9th Circuit panel struck it down last year, but the court is now considering a request from gay marriage advocates to rehear the case with an 11-judge panel.
The group representing same-sex couples in the Proposition 8 case pounced quickly Wednesday on Obama's public statements, indicating it might become ammunition later in the legal battle, which also is expected to reach the Supreme Court at some point.
"President Obama's words remind us that marriage and equality are universal values that unite us all," said Theodore Olson, a lawyer for same-sex couples and former U.S. solicitor general in the Bush administration.
Staff writers Julia Prodis Sulek and Matthias Gafni contributed to this report. Contact Josh Richman at email@example.com.
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