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Debate Brings Clarity to Gay Marriage Issue

The accepted wisdom in the Capitol has always been that legislative floor speeches never change votes. Maybe. But they do change views.

For example, a 90-minute debate Thursday in the state Senate on a bill to allow same-sex marriages: It changed my view.

Actually, it cleared up my muddled view, which really began shifting eight years ago during a chat at the back of the Senate chamber with then-President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer.

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How do you feel about gay marriage? I asked.

“You know,” he replied, “people have so many problems and life’s so short, if letting gays ‘marry’ gives them some joy and happiness, why not? I say let them do it.”

Lockyer later got elected attorney general and now is dutifully defending in court the state’s ban on same-sex marriages. But he hasn’t changed his personal view.

It made sense to me, but I wasn’t ready to go there yet. Certainly, homosexual couples should be entitled to all the protections and privileges of heterosexuals -- call it a “civil union” or “domestic partnership,” a civil right or plain fairness. But calling it a “marriage” could devalue the institution in some minds, especially young people’s, I thought.

Until the Senate debate.

Probably the speech that firmly clicked me into a “yeah, why not?” mode was by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). He talked about marriage “reinforcing traditional values: accountability, monogamy, commitment, the rule of law ... “

We should be encouraging that as a society, he asserted.

Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) followed up: “Marriage is a phenomenal institution.... The glue of our society.... By extending it, we strengthen it, not threaten it....

“The threat to marriage today is poverty, discrimination, lack of healthcare ... domestic abuse, child abuse.”

As the compelling debate continued, I kept thinking about what Lockyer had said -- and the people suffering in hurricane hell, the American soldiers being blown up, the gas price gougers. And I wondered why anybody should worry about what we call two people living together in a loving relationship.

There was a lot of talk about God.

My god doesn’t fret about homosexuality, but clearly many people believe that theirs does.

“I don’t believe there’s a member of this chamber who doesn’t ... know that [same-sex marriage] is not the right thing to do,” said Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta). “I believe that knowledge comes from a higher power.... That higher power is also the higher power that created the institution of marriage.”

Replied Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey): “I don’t think anyone should claim God as being on their side in this debate.... We are not here to discuss what churches, synagogues ... believe about this. We are here to discuss the laws of California.”

The bill would not -- could not -- affect religious rules. Churches still could refuse to recognize a marriage. Catholics know all about that.

Another opposition argument was that marriage’s main purpose is to reproduce.

Homosexuals have every right to enter into civil contracts, said Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), “but can’t you see that marriage is a fundamentally different institution? Marriage institutionally exists in nature by which we propagate our species and inculcate our young with values and standards....

“Marriages exist to bring a new child into the world.”

Well, not entirely. There’s also companionship and love. Many happily married couples benefit society without ever propagating. We humans have evolved beyond a hitch-up-to-propagate species.

Two things in particular struck me about the debate.

* Only two of the 15 Republicans stood to make their case against same-sex marriage, although all but one voted against it. I kept waiting for more.

“This has been debated ad nauseam for years,” Senate GOP Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine told me. “I thought the debate was too long. How many times can you say the same thing? It became like a revival.”

Republicans also have learned to cool the rhetoric on social issues. In past gay rights debates, some have sounded kooky. Once, a lifelong rancher rambled on about gay heifers.

* Practically every female senator -- 11 of 12 -- rose to passionately support the bill. It showed the growing influence of women in an increasingly diverse Legislature.

“Women do understand discrimination,” says Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who 11 years ago became the first openly homosexual legislator. She was the Senate shepherd for the bill, sponsored by gay Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco).

The bill barely passed, with 21 Democratic votes. It will be debated this week in the Assembly, where a similar measure was rejected in June.

Leno is short three votes. He’s lobbying nervous lawmakers who plan to run next year for other offices and fear angering voters. It doesn’t help that, even if the bill passes, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is virtually certain to veto the measure.

In 2000, 61% of Californians passed an initiative to recognize only heterosexual marriages. But opposition to same-sex marriage has been weakening. The latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows an even split, 46% to 46%, between voters who favor and oppose same-sex marriage.

Some people’s views are changing, as I can attest.

And momentum from the Senate’s becoming the first legislative body in America to approve same-sex marriage could change votes in the Assembly.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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