The California Senate voted Thursday to allow homosexuals to marry, becoming the first legislative body in the United States to embrace the idea and setting off a scramble for three votes needed for passage in the Assembly.
Almost completely along party lines, the Democrat-controlled Senate approved the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would allow marriage between two people rather than only between a man and a woman.
The measure passed by the minimum number of necessary votes, 21-15, after a sometimes personal debate in which both sides acknowledged the momentous nature of the vote.
Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), one of six openly gay legislators in Sacramento, said that allowing homosexuals to marry “unchains a community that has participated in this state since its inception.”
With only a week left before lawmakers adjourn for the year, the measure faces a tough fight in the Assembly, which defeated it in June. Signaling a likely veto if it does pass, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman said he preferred to let judges sort out the legality of gay marriage; such a case is moving toward the state Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, advocates said the vote was a milestone in the effort to make California the first state whose elected representatives decide to allow gays to marry. Massachusetts is the only state that allows such marriages, but that was decreed by the state’s courts. Vermont and Connecticut permit civil unions.
Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the proposal’s chief sponsor, said, “We’re looking for three votes, and I can’t tell you today who the three will be, but I think the power of the success coming from the floor of the Senate today will give us the necessary momentum and encouragement to do what we all know is the right thing to do.”
He is targeting four Democrats to try to get the remaining three: Jerome Horton of Inglewood, Simon Salinas of Salinas, Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino and Tom Umberg of Anaheim. All said Thursday they were not sure how they would vote.
“I’m being lobbied hard, and I still have an open mind,” Umberg said.
Opponents decried the vote as a repudiation of the will of the electorate, which five years ago passed Proposition 22, declaring that California would recognize only marriages between men and women. They said that legislators cannot undo a law passed by 61% of the public without putting it before the electorate again.
“How can God bless California when our lawmakers do this?” asked Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, which is collecting signatures for one of several initiatives that would amend the state Constitution to outlaw gay marriage. “The Democrat-controlled Senate has completely overturned the people’s vote on marriage.”
Andrew Pugno, a legal advisor to ProtectMarriage.com, a coalition of groups that helped approve Proposition 22 and is pushing its own initiative, said that protecting heterosexual marriage through the Constitution “would send a clear message to the Legislature to stop tinkering with the voters’ decision on this issue.”
These efforts come as appellate courts weigh whether to uphold a San Francisco judge’s ruling in March that the state’s marriage law illegally discriminates. The case is expected to reach the California Supreme Court in 2006.
Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman, Margita Thompson, said that although the governor supports domestic partnerships, he does not agree with legislatively allowing gay marriages.
California’s domestic partnership law provides many of the same rights and obligations as marriage.
“The people spoke when they voted in Proposition 22,” Thompson said. “It has subsequently gone to the courts, and the governor believes that is where it should be decided. It’s an issue for the people and the courts.”
Asked about a veto, she said the governor’s office does not commit before legislation reaches Schwarzenegger’s desk.
Even if it were to pass and be signed, opponents would probably file a court challenge saying that it would require voter approval because of conflicts with Proposition 22. But backers are prepared to argue that it would amend a different part of state family law and that Proposition 22 only prevents California from recognizing gay marriages performed outside the state.
In a signal of how precarious passage was even in the generally liberal Senate, advocates waited to hold the vote until they were assured that Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), whose wife was about to give birth, could be present to declare his support.
All the Republicans voted against it, as did one Democrat, Dean Florez of Shafter, in the conservative Central Valley. Three other Democrats abstained: Denise Ducheny of San Diego, Michael Machado of Linden and Jack Scott of Altadena.
In an unusually somber and long debate, 18 Democrats took the floor. They portrayed opening marriage to gays as the natural evolution of an institution that once was based on property and prohibited interracial unions. They noted that California’s marriage law was neutral on gender from 1850 until 1977.
“Those of us who are heterosexual need to say this very clearly: It is not fair that we have given ourselves a privilege that we’ve denied to others,” said Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont).
Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) spoke of her 20-year lesbian relationship, and Kuehl recalled the joy she saw in gay couples she married last spring during the period when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom authorized gay unions.
Sen. Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood), who is black, recalled the struggles he faced when he married a white woman. “When we were slaves, we couldn’t marry nobody,” Vincent said.
Only two Republicans spoke, and both said that gay marriage would distort the best arrangement for raising children: by a woman and man.
Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) said he believed that homosexuals should be allowed to enter into civil contracts. “But can’t you see that marriage is a fundamentally different institution?” he asked. “Marriage institutionally exists in nature by which we propagate our species and inculcate our young with values and standards and sociological guidance that produces human society.
“If we repealed all the laws of the world,” McClintock said, “marriage would still exist.”
Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) said: “I don’t believe there’s a member in this chamber who doesn’t somewhere, either readily on the surface or down inside, know that this is not the right thing to do. I believe that comes from a higher power that put that knowledge in you. That higher power is also the higher power that created the institution of marriage.”
The comments brought retorts from Democrats who said gays had already shown themselves capable of raising children. They also quoted passages of tolerance from the Bible.
“I respect the choices you make. I struggle every day to understand them,” said Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), a lesbian. “But I don’t presume to judge you, to think it’s my right to interfere with your interpretation of your love.”
Advocates have been heartened by the July decisions by Spain and Canada to legalize gay marriage, following the Netherlands and Belgium. Seth Kilbourn, director of the marriage project at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group based in Washington, D.C., said the Senate’s action was “another teachable moment for the rest of the country” that demonstrated “after a considered, rational and reasonable debate that people will come down on the side of treating all families equally under the law.”
Leno said he hopes the Assembly will take up his measure, AB 849, on Tuesday. Supporters will need 41 votes for passage but were able to muster only 37 in June.
Leno said one assemblyman absent that day, Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), supports the bill.
Leno said he and Alice Huffman, California president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, are lobbying for passage in the Assembly.
“We’re making history,” he said. “It doesn’t happen easily.”