Legislature OKs Gay Marriage

Times Staff Writer

The California Legislature made history Tuesday as the Assembly passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

With no votes to spare, California's lawmakers became the first in the United States to act without a court order to sanction gay marriages. The measure was approved after three Democratic lawmakers who abstained on a similar proposal that failed in June changed their minds under intense lobbying by bill author Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and gay and civil rights activists.

No Republicans voted in favor of the bill. Forty-one of the Assembly's 47 Democrats voted yes; four Democrats voted "no," and two abstained.

The bill, which would change California's legal definition of marriage from "a civil contract between a man and a woman" to a "civil contract between two persons," now goes to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has signaled that he will veto it.

Tuesday's vote came after 23 lawmakers addressed the chamber, many of them focusing on the historic element of their action, others relating intensely personal stories.

In a moment of high drama, with dozens of gay rights supporters watching from the gallery, Simon Salinas (D-Salinas) hesitated for several seconds as the tally hung at 40 "ayes" -- one short of passage. Then, having promised Leno months ago that he would not let the bill fail, Salinas pressed the "aye" button on his desk, making the final vote 41-35.

Those seconds "seemed like an eternity," said Mark Guzman of El Dorado Hills, as he and his partner of 14 years, J. Scott Coatsworth, celebrated in the Capitol rotunda after the voting.

In addition to Salinas, Assembly members Tom Umberg of Anaheim and Gloria Negrete-McLeod of Chino provided key votes. Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), who had missed the floor vote in June, also helped the bill prevail.

Assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood) -- one of the lawmakers who abstained in June, when Leno's bill fell four votes short -- withheld his vote again Tuesday. Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City) abstained after having voted "no" in June. Assemblyman Joe Baca Jr. (D-Rialto) also abstained Tuesday.

Two of the lawmakers who switched their votes from abstain to "aye" said in floor speeches that they were glad for another chance.

Umberg elicited applause and whoops in the otherwise hushed chamber when he described why he had changed his mind. He said he had been "cajoled, been harassed, been harangued and been threatened" by friends over the issue.

"This is one of those times when history looks upon us to see where we are," Umberg said. "Ten years from now, there are a handful of issues that history will record where we stood, and this is one of those issues.

"History will record whether we pushed a bit, took the lead to encourage tolerance, to encourage equality to encourage fairness," he said.

"The constituency I'm concerned about is a very small one," said Umberg, "and that's the constituency of my three children, should they decide to look back on my record ... and reflect on where I was when we could make a difference."

Negrete-McLeod similarly said she regretted abstaining in June.

Some Republicans dismissed the historic significance of the vote and said gay marriage is not an issue of civil rights. Others criticized Leno for reviving the bill after the June defeat and called gay marriage immoral.

"The institution of marriage transcends political fads," said Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta). "We are talking about an institution that has been defined for thousands of years ... and we are being asked to engage in a great social experiment."

The fight over same-sex marriage will now shift to the governor's office -- and to the courts and perhaps the ballot box. A case testing the legality of gay marriage is moving toward the state Supreme Court, and opponents of same-sex marriage are trying to qualify two initiatives to ban the practice for the ballot next year.

Leno characterized gay marriage as the most important civil rights issue of the 21st century. He enlisted Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, and Alice Huffman, California president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, to help him lobby undecided lawmakers.

Huerta said she spoke to Salinas last week and "went back to our old culture, the Latino culture."

"Respecting other people's rights is peace," she said. "Respecting other people's rights to marry who they want is a constitutional right, it's a human right and it's a privacy right. I said to Simon, 'You've got to be a leader. ... You've got to have courage.' "

Foes of same-sex marriage call Leno's bill unconstitutional, saying it overturns what citizens put into law five years ago when they passed Proposition 22 with 61% of the vote. That initiative said that only marriage between a man and a woman was valid and recognized in California.

"The only word I can see here is prostitution," said Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families. "Instead of obeying the voters and the Constitution, the Democratic politicians have prostituted themselves to the homosexual marriage agenda. It's not gay, it's bad."

After Leno's bill failed in June, he inserted the gay-marriage legislation into a measure about marine research that was pending in the Senate. That bill, AB 849, cleared the upper house Thursday, also with the minimum number of votes necessary.

Leno said he is optimistic that Schwarzenegger has an open mind on his bill, which the governor has until Oct. 9 to veto or sign. The assemblyman noted that public opinion on gay marriage is evenly split, 46% to 46%, in the state based on a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

"I believe this is a governor who at his core is a libertarian on issues of social matters," Leno said, "and that he is very fair-minded. I think he also takes the longer, rather than shorter, view of history."

After the vote, Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson said: "The people spoke when they passed Proposition 22. The issue subsequently went to the courts. The governor believes the courts are the correct venue for this decision to be made. He will uphold whatever decision the court renders."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Same-sex marriage

California could become the second state permitting same-sex marriages.

In other states:

* Massachusetts -- Same-sex marriage legalized by court decision

* Connecticut -- Civil unions legalized by legislation

* Vermont -- Civil unions legalized by legislation

In other countries:

* Same-sex marriage is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada

Source: Times reporting

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