The action by the state's top prosecutor was designed to stop the so-called Sodomite Suppression Act that was proposed by Huntington Beach attorney Matthew McLaughlin.
The ballot initative would authorize the killing of gays and lesbians by "bullets to the head" — or by "any other convenient method."
Although considered an incredible long-shot to pass even if it ended up on a ballot, McLaughlin's move tests the limits of the state's normally liberal attitude toward placing even the most extreme ideas on a ballot if enough signatures are collected, experts say.
For a fee of $200, McLaughlin submitted the act to the state attorney general's office, which must then give it a ballot-worthy name, summarize its effects and set the clock running for gathering signatures.
"This proposal not only threatens public safety, it is patently unconstitutional, utterly reprehensible and has no place in a civil society," Harris said in a statement. "Today, I am filing an action for declaratory relief with the [Sacramento County Superior] Court seeking judicial authorization for relief from the duty to prepare and issue the title and summary for the 'Sodomite Suppression Act.' If the Court does not grant this relief, my office will be forced to issue a title and summary for a proposal that seeks to legalize discrimination and vigilantism."
Charles H. Bell, a Sacramento attorney who has worked on initiatives, said Harris may get some relief from the court.
"It's appropriate to go to court to seek such authorization," Bell said. He said the proposed ballot measure is not likely to withstand a court challenge. "'Unconstitutional' is about the mildest adjective you can use in connection with this outrageous proposal," he said.
Some of California's most controversial laws have been given life through the initiative process, though some lived only briefly. A 1996 initiative legalized marijuana for medicinal use, a law that still stands. Two years earlier, voters approved the so-called Save Our State initiative, which denied public education and other benefits to those in the country illegally; that law was quickly invalidated by the courts.
Two lawmakers said they were so revolted by McLaughlin's proposed initiative that they have proposed a bill that would increase the fee for filing a ballot measure from $200 to $8,000.
"We live in California, the cradle of direct democracy, but we also need a threshold for reasonableness," said Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), who co-authored the legislation with Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica).
But to get on the ballot, McLaughlin and any supporters would have to collect more than 365,000 signatures in 180 days, a high bar even for well-financed efforts.
"In California, this has the same chance as a snowball's chance in hell," said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A.
Kurt Oneto, a Sacramento attorney who specializes in the initiative process, said Harris does not have the ability to turn down McLaughlin's proposed ballot measure, regardless of how she might feel.
"The state gets serious initiatives that are submitted and we get silly ones, and every now and then we get ugly ones like this," Oneto said. "I would submit this is probably the ugliest one I remember."
McLaughlin's proposal calls same-sex intimacy "a monstrous evil" and says it would be better for gay people to die than for Californians to "be killed by God's just wrath against us for the folly of tolerating wickedness in our midst."
It also would make the spreading of "sodomistic propaganda" punishable by a $1-million fine, 10 years in jail or deportation from the state. And it would ban gay people from holding public office.
If the proposal collected enough signatures, it would be placed on the November 2016 ballot. If voters were to approve it, the decision on whether to make it a law would ultimately rest with the courts, which have overturned measures approved by voters, including
This month, the California Legislature's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus filed a formal complaint against McLaughlin with the State Bar of California, asking that he be investigated.
An online petition at change.org calling for McLaughlin to be disbarred had more than 42,000 signatures Wednesday.
Dave Garcia, director of policy for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said that anybody who signs McLaughlin's proposal and "calls for the murder of gay people" should expect that "their names are going to be made public."