Frustrated by the passage of Proposition 8, the measure banning same-sex marriage, Lorian Dunlop walked outside her Murrieta home and nailed a sign to her tree.
“Shall We Vote on Your Marriage Now???” it asked.
It was a rare act of defiance for Dunlop and her spouse, Darcie, who have spent the last four years living a quintessential suburban life in a quiet neighborhood where they felt safe and secure.
But the battle over same-sex marriage changed all that. They attended local rallies against Proposition 8 where people in passing cars hurled insults and anti-gay slurs. At home, their political signs were repeatedly vandalized or stolen.
They look at their community differently now. An edginess has crept in.
“I feel like we are in a hostile environment,” Dunlop said, sitting in her living room. “More hostile than it was before.”
Republican domination and a strong evangelical Christian base have combined to make southwest Riverside County a bastion of social conservatism in a largely liberal state.
It is sometimes called California’s Bible Belt, with mega-churches running from Temecula to Wildomar and about 10,000 Mormons scattered throughout the valley.
Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2 to 1 here, making it the most conservative part of the largely conservative Inland Empire.
Experts say the lure of affordable housing has provided a steady stream of newcomers who have expanded and solidified the Republican base -- a base more attuned to social than economic issues.
Results from Tuesday’s election have not been broken out by precinct, but in 2004, President Bush easily won Temecula and Murrieta, defeating Sen. John Kerry with 40,113 votes to 17,318. In some neighborhoods, Bush won over 70% of the vote.
“I think it’s fair to say they are more Bush conservative than Reagan conservative, in that faith and religion figure more into their thinking,” said Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at UC Riverside.
In other parts of California, Latino and Asian immigrants have brought a diversity of political and religious views with them. But the portion of foreign-born residents in the Temecula-Murrieta region is only 11%, compared with an average of 26% statewide, said Karthik Ramakrishnan, associate professor of political science at UC Riverside.
“In the Inland Empire in general, people are more involved in the church than in other parts of the state,” said Ramakrishnan. “There is much less civic involvement. There is less of a nonprofit infrastructure and not as many other venues to get involved in.”
The steady stream of newcomers has been a boon to religious groups.
Pastor Ron Armstrong moved from Orange County 17 years ago to “plant a church” in Wildomar, near Murrieta.
Now his massive Cornerstone Community Church has over 4,500 members and its own K-12 school. It offers men’s groups, women’s groups, singles’ groups, “Mommy and Me” groups, recreational outings, classes -- in short, an instant community for the disconnected.
“The new housing was the key,” Armstrong said. “People moving to new housing are in transition. Whether they ever attended church or not they are more open to community connection, and many get more involved in the church.”
Armstrong describes himself as politically independent but said his congregation leans Republican. On Proposition 8, he sent members an e-mail saying that while the church was not against gays, it also believed that “marriage has a biblical foundation that has always been between a man and a woman,” he said. “To us it was offensive to take a religious term and apply it out of context.”
Although some observers expect the region to become more liberal as it grows, Bob Richmond, chairman of the Riverside County GOP, hopes the opposite will happen.
“It’s our strongest Republican area, and I think there are many people moving in who we can still bring into our party,” he said.
Along with evangelicals, this corner of Riverside County has been a magnet for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When Carrie Tomseth moved to Temecula in 1982, there was just one Mormon church. Now there are 10 congregations in the city, along with 10 in Murrieta and others in Wildomar and Menifee.
“It actually used to be way, way more conservative than it is now,” said Tomseth, who worked in support of Proposition 8. “It is becoming more diverse, but people still come here because it’s such a family-oriented place. In fact, I think it’s more family-oriented than it is conservative.”
Larry Slusser is an LDS leader in Temecula.
“Mormons began to move in during the housing boom. It was perfect, because it had good schools and good family values,” he said. “This is a churchgoing place. People are sensitive to religion, the Ten Commandments and that kind of thing.”
With the predominance of Republicans, liberals sometimes find themselves alienated.
At a Temecula park last week, four young mothers cheered the election of Obama and mourned the passage of Proposition 8.
“Temecula is a very religious, very Republican place,” said 29-year-old Megan Warren, who moved from Austin, Texas. “I’m not a religious person, and I don’t believe gay marriage should be a church thing.”
Neither do the Dunlops in Murrieta. Both women came from fundamentalist backgrounds and attended religious colleges. And both wrestled for years with the guilt they felt over being lesbians.
“I thought, ‘God, you played a really horrible trick on me -- making me think this was really disgusting and then making me gay,’ ” said Lorian Dunlop, who plays cello and volunteers in her daughter’s second-grade class.
She and Darcie Dunlop, who runs an accounting business and sings opera, were married in June and have twin 7-year-old girls.
The couple, both 47, moved to Murrieta from Orange County looking for a place with good schools and space for children. They knew it was a conservative town but believed they could fit in.
“We have always lived comfortably with our neighbors and have always been who we are,” Lorian said.
They made friends with evangelicals and discussed their lifestyle.
“I think it’s important to have a diverse group of friends,” Darcie said. “My hairdresser is a fundamentalist Republican who is also a very nice person.”
Now they wonder if their efforts to blend in hurt them.
“Our goal is to be like everyone else, but when you become invisible your rights are no longer protected,” Lorian said. “One lesson we have learned is to be more out there.”
During their fight against Proposition 8, the Dunlops’ yard became a battleground. Their anti-8 signs were repeatedly stolen. At one point Lorian put up a sign saying she would not be intimidated by the thefts.
When someone took a neighbor’s ‘Yes on 8' placard, the woman marched over and accused the couple. Things began slipping out of control.
And then something strange happened.
The Dunlops heard their dog barking one morning. They looked outside expecting to see someone grabbing their sign. Instead a young man was bent over the sidewalk with chalk in his hand.
“He wrote, “Everyone deserves to love,” Darcie Dunlop said. “It was a random act of kindness.”