Same-Sex-Marriage Battle Appears Over in California

The push to ban gay marriage in the state seems successful, barring a drastic shift in mail-in ballots.


SAN FRANCISCO—After one of the hardest-fought—and most expensive—elections in political history, the battle over same-sex marriage in California appears to be over. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, 52 percent of voters have voted for Proposition 8, an initiative that bans same-sex marriage in the state, while 48 percent voted against it. The race was called today by the Associated Press, though there are still millions of mail-in ballots left to count.

The result, which cast a pall over this city's celebration of Barack Obama's victory in the presidential race, could put an end to a red-hot, years-long culture war in this state over whether gay and lesbian couples should have the right to marry. Just eight years ago, in 2000, more than 60 percent of California voters approved a measure banning same-sex couples from marrying, only to see the state's Supreme Court rule the law unconstitutional earlier this year. Four of seven justices not only agreed that gay and lesbian couples enjoy the same fundamental right to get married that straight people do but also concluded that preventing them from marrying amounts to discrimination under the state Constitution.

Opponents of same-sex marriage, angered by what they considered judicial "activism," gathered enough signatures to put a new measure on this fall's ballot to amend the state Constitution and eliminate, once again, the right of same-sex couples to marry. The effort drew the attention of social conservatives and gay-rights supporters across the country, and California quickly became ground zero for the culture wars.

While thousands of same-sex couples began to say their vows across the state, an unprecedented political tug of war began between the two sides. Even the presidential candidates were drawn into the fray, with John McCain announcing his support for the attempted ban and Obama saying he was against it. In total, more than $70 million was spent on television ads and get-out-the-vote efforts by both sides, making this the most expensive social policy initiative in history. Only the presidential candidates spent more money on an election this year.

The first results showing Proposition 8 leading were posted while Obama took the stage in Chicago to give his acceptance speech. Many same-sex-marriage supporters here were struck by the irony of the moment: While Obama represented a symbolic victory over historic discrimination, gay couples in California appeared to be losing the same battle. According to exit polls, in addition to widespread support among conservatives in the state, huge turnout among African-Americans may have played a role in the defeat of same-sex marriage. Seventy percent of blacks told pollsters they voted for the ban.

It is not clear what the legal ramifications of the passage of Proposition 8 will be or whether the thousands of same-sex marriages performed in the past few months will remain valid. Most legal experts believe no state court will be able to undo the new law. Instead, same-sex-marriage advocates may have to turn to the federal courts and argue that the ban should be overturned on the grounds that it violates the U.S. Constitution—something most legal experts think federal courts will not do.

In the meantime, California has a separate domestic partnership law, which affords gay couples most, but not all, of the legal rights of marriage.

Across the country, 29 states now have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, including both Arizona and Florida, where measures barring the practice passed yesterday. Ten states, including California, allow gay couples either to marry or to join in civil unions with some of the legal protections of marriage.

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