Look to the Supremes for Final Ruling on Marriage Equality
Is a federal appeals court ruling that found California's ban on marriage for same-sex couples unconstitutional a gamechanger in the movement for marriage equality?
On Feb. 7, the three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sitting in San Francisco upheld now-retired Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's 2010 ruling. The judges dismissed Proposition 8 proponents' arguments that Vaughn should have recused himself from the case because he was in a long-term relationship with another man. The court also found that the defendants had legal standing to challenge Vaughn's ruling under California law, even though state officials declined to defend Prop 8.
"Today the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, as the courts have repeatedly throughout our nation's history, that singling out a class of citizens for discriminatory treatment is unfair, unlawful and violates basic American values," said Chad Griffin, president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights' Board of Directors. "Like many other Americans, our plaintiffs want nothing more than to marry the person they love. Committed, loving couples and their families should not be denied this most fundamental freedom."
The Prop. 8 case could possibly go before the U.S. Supreme Court sometime next year, although supporters of the 2008 voter-approved ban on marriage for same-sex couples may opt to appeal the judges' decision to the full 9th Circuit instead. Regardless of the potential outcome, the ruling is the latest in a series of victories that have provided additional momentum to the marriage equality movement.
Moving Forward - And Possibly Backward
Less than a week after the federal appeals court's ruling, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a measure into law that will allow same-sex couples to marry in the Evergreen State. New Jersey lawmakers on February 16 approved a similar bill that would allow nuptials for gays and lesbians in the Garden State. Republican Gov. Chris Christie quickly vetoed the measure, but legislators remain optimistic that they can successfully override it.
North Carolina voters in May will consider a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. Minnesotans face a similar measure in November. In New Hampshire, lawmakers are poised to vote on a bill that would nullify marriage equality there.
One thing is for sure: The hot-button topic of nuptials for same-sex couples has become red meat for leading Republican presidential candidates who remain keen to gain traction among skeptical social conservatives by trying to outdo one another in their opposition. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum described the 9th Circuit's Prop 8 decision as another in a "long line of radical activist rulings by this rogue circuit."
"This decision does not end this fight, and I expect it to go to the Supreme Court," added former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a statement released shortly after the judges issued their decision. "That prospect underscores the vital importance of this decision and the movement to preserve our values."
Romney sparked controversy a few days later at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., when he defended his use of a now-repealed 1913 state law that prevented same-sex couples from getting married in the Bay State. "On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage," he said to sustained applause.
But Is the Issue Still 'Sticky'?
But does this rhetoric still resonate with conservatives?
Romney narrowly defeated Santorum in the Washington Times/CPAC straw poll. But only 19 percent of voters who responded said promoting marriage as between a man and a woman and that "protecting the life of the unborn" are their top priorities going into this election cycle. Sixty-three percent of participants listed reducing the size of government as the most important issue facing the country. A WMUR/University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released in early February found that 59 percent of New Hampshire residents oppose efforts to repeal their state's marriage equality law.
"I don't think that it's a good issue for the campaign trail," San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders told EDGE during an interview in Washington, D.C., shortly after the federal appeals court in San Francisco issued its Prop 8 ruling. "Civil rights issues have always been settled in the courts. They're never settled anywhere else."
Sanders, a Republican, co-chairs a campaign that includes more than 140 mayors from across the country that support marriage equality. He cited his lesbian daughter and members of his own staff when he publicly endorsed nuptials for same-sex couples at an emotional 2007 press conference. California Republicans blasted Sanders' decision, but voters re-elected him the following year.
"At some point you have to stand up for what you think is right," said Sanders.