Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gay Marriage Rights

Focus on gay marriage rights stays on state fights

Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- California's status as a guardian of gay rights slipped this week when its highest court upheld a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, even as other states extended the institution to gay couples.

"Are the people of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire more sexually literate than Californians?" asked the National Sexuality Resource Center, a San Francisco-based think tank, naming the states where gays can or soon will be able to wed.

The California Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the ban on gay marriage, known as Proposition 8, in a state that's home to 14 percent of the nation's same-sex couples and was the first to offer gays the spousal rights of marriage without being ordered to by a court.

Voters in 2008 passed the constitutional amendment, which trumped an earlier state Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

In spite of the setback in the state, gay rights advocates say they still believe what happens there is important no matter the outcome. Supporters and opponents spent $83 million on the Proposition 8 campaign last year, making it the most expensive election on a social issue in the nation's history.

"Certainly California remains very important in this epic struggle just because it's so big," said Richard Socarides, who served as President Bill Clinton's adviser on gay civil rights.

And because of its size, gay rights advocates say they'll continue their campaign to win over more voters. Leaders of Equality California and Courage Campaign said they have started canvassing in more conservative parts of the state, working with religious and ethnic groups and otherwise learning from mistakes made during last year's failed campaign.

"The biggest thing California can do is win back marriage at the ballot box," said Mary Bonauto, the civil rights director of Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which brought the lawsuit that led to Massachusetts becoming the first state to sanction same-sex marriage.

"We have won marriage in courts, we have even now marriage winning in legislatures," she said. "To win it with the people would crumble the right wing's whole house of cards."

Bonauto said that if California advocates succeeded in getting Proposition 8 reversed, it would mark an unprecedented milestone: 28 other states have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage but none have been challenged with a popular vote.

As California gay rights groups prepared to launch a campaign to repeal Proposition 8 at the ballot box next year, two lawyers announced Tuesday they had filed a federal lawsuit challenging the initiative in the hopes of getting the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, the lawyers who represented opposing sides in the 2000 Bush v. Gore election challenge, said they think the high court is ripe to take on the issue. They filed on behalf of two gay men and two gay women.

"I felt it was very important we present the American people and the courts a unified front and tell the courts and the American people through our presence and our participation this is not about right or left or partisan politics," Olson said. "This is about what we all share as Americans."

But it wasn't a move welcomed by all advocates. Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the suit "sends a powerful message that the time for change has come," but also warned the lawyers of the "only one shot at the U.S. Supreme Court."

They and "any attorneys bringing a case that will affect the freedom and legal status of an entire community bear a very heavy responsibility to be certain they have fully considered the consequences," Minter said.

Gay rights activists also were pressuring President Barack Obama to fulfill his campaign pledge to work toward repealing the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. The law prevents couples in states that recognize same-sex unions from securing Social Security spousal benefits, filing joint taxes and other federal rights of marriage.

The focus, however, remained on working though state legislatures and voters to win marriage rights, said Evan Wolfson, executive director of New York-based Freedom to Marry.

"Winning marriage in more states is crucial not only for the families living in those states, but for creating a comfort level that sets the stage for a national resolution," he said.


AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this story.

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