The California Supreme Court overturned a voter-approved ban on gay marriage today in a ruling that will make California the second and largest state to allow gay and lesbian couples join together in matrimony.
On the steps of the courthouse in Sacramento, Stuart Gaffney and his partner John Lewis, among 19 plaintiffs in the case, were ecstatic. “I’m feeling just complete joy,” Gaffney said. “Rarely is a legal decision so romantic, but this one means John and I can now be newlyweds after 21 years together.”
Gaffney and Lewis were among thousands of couples married by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 in a move that was immensely popular in San Francisco but inspired a conservative voter backlash across the country that many people blamed for hurting the electoral prospects of Sen. John Kerry. That August a California court annulled the marriages and appeals have been winding though state courts ever since.
Gaffney and Lewis, star plaintiffs in the case, have compared their fight for legal status to that faced by Gaffney’s parents, whose marriage in the 1950s was not recognized in Missouri under the state’s strict anti-miscegenation law. Gaffney’s father was Irish and his mother was Chinese. California’s landmark 1948 Perez v. Sharp ruling was nation’s first to overturn such laws and had become a key precedent in the gay marriage case. More broadly, the case rested upon the California constitution’s promise of individual liberty, due process, and equal protection under the law.
Although the ruling doesn’t validate the 2004 marriages performed by Newsom, and conservative groups have vowed to push for another ballot measure to change the California constitution to specifically ban gay marriage, for now, gay and lesbian couples are in the clear to tie the knot. When Gaffney’s mother called him today, she immediately asked, “When is your wedding day?”
“We are going to get married as soon as we can because we have waited long enough,” Gaffney said. “But we are going to get married with our friends and families.” He paused, fighting back tears. “I’m still just sort of floating from it,” he said.
The mood was jubilant that afternoon in San Francisco, where city hall had joined the case as a plaintiff. After a triumphant press conference outside the Mayor’s office, same-sex couples milled about and embraced beneath the rotunda as the PA system piped in love songs. “We were on complete pins and needles, very pointy pins and needles,” said Jennifer Pizer a plaintiffs lawyer on the case. “And then we got the decision and started tearing up.
“For many of us this isn’t just an exercise of the law, it’s about our lives–whether we’re good enough and our love is good enough.” Pizer could not immediately say whether she’d now be getting married. “My partner of nearly 24 years has said yes,” she added, “but I should probably talk to her first before I talk to anyone else.”
The marriage party could be short lived, however. Conservative church groups have already collected 1.1 million signatures in favor of the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. If the state determines that 694,354 of those signatures are valid, the proposed amendment will qualify for the November ballot. Unlike Proposition 22, the gay marriage ban that was overturned today, the new ballot measure would be immune to court challenge. The question is how many among the 63 percent of Californians who’d supported Prop. 22 have changed their views toward gay marriage since the measure passed in 2000. “I think California has come a long, long way since then,” Pizer said. “I think it changed a lot of people’s minds to see how much it meant to couples to be able to marry in San Francisco.”
As coincidence would have it, Robert and Amy McHale, a white and Asian couple from New York, had shown up in the city hall rotunda today in wedding dress and tuxedo, completely unaware that the Supreme Court had just passed down its landmark ruling. They’d come instead to snap wedding photos. As they stood on the granite steps bathed in the strobe of flash bulbs, a lesbian activist approached to congratulate them. “Understand that you are getting married on such a blessed and auspicious day,” she said.
Robert McHale’s thoughts on gay marriage? “Sure, why not?” he said. “That’s fine if that makes people happy. We are all about happiness.”