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Same Sex Marriage Affects the Whole Country

How same-sex marriage in California affects the country -- and the election.
 
 
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Patchwork, partying, pessimism, politics: That's the state, so to speak, of same-sex marriage around the U.S. since same-sex couples began lining up to get married in California on the afternoon of June 16.

News of the California Supreme Court's May 15 decision, which said that denying marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples was unconstitutional, surprised some observers because it came from a Republican-appointed court -- and thrilled couples across the country because California does not have residency requirements for marriage.

At the time, Massachusetts, which began offering same-sex couples marriage licenses in 2004, had routinely been denying them to couples from other states thanks to a 1913 law intended to ensure that interracial couples from other states didn't get married in Massachusetts. That law changed at the end of July.

Many marriage equality proponents hailed California's decision as a major step forward, but one of the first reactions for some political wonks was markedly more guarded or even pessimistic.

First, the good news, by the numbers. During the first month that licenses were available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally, counties in the Bay Area reported larger numbers of licenses granted and of ceremonies performed in clerk's offices, according to a mid-July Associated Press report.

California does not keep separate count of same-sex marriages, according to the California Department of Public Health, so those curious about the numbers must track county-by-county records or simply look at increases. The AP says that San Francisco, not surprisingly, reported a 131 percent increase in licenses granted, but Sonoma County (a romantic destination in the heart of California's wine country) also reported an increase of 160 percent, from 340 to 546, and a quadrupling of ceremonies performed in the clerk's offices. That number went down in at least one California county, however: Kern County, which includes Bakersfield, stopped performing any civil ceremonies at all, whether between opposite- or same-sex couples, on June 15. But the county clerk's office there must still grant marriage licenses to those who legally qualify.

The economic impact on a budget-constrained state has not been small. According to the AP, the 44 counties in California took in over a quarter of a million dollars more this June than last June. The UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute released a study in early June, before same-sex marriages began in California, estimating that if the state's voters didn't approve a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on the ballot in November, the ceremonies would "boost California's economy by over $683.6 million in direct spending over the next three years."

Massachusetts hasn't ignored those findings. A study commissioned by the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development estimated that repealing the 1913 law, which said that the state would not marry those whose marriages would be illegal in other states, could bring in at least $111 million into the state economy over the next three years. The Massachusetts Senate voted for repeal on July 15, and the House added its vote two weeks later. Bay State Governor Deval Patrick added his signature July 31. The bill repealing the old law contained an emergency preamble allowing out-of-state same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses immediately, and reports in the New York Times indicate that New York couples took advantage of the repeal as soon as it was signed. When a reporter asked Patrick about couples coming to Massachusetts to get married from other states that expressly forbid same-sex marriages, Patrick said, "What we can do is tend our own garden and make sure that it's weeded, and I think we've weeded out a discriminatory law."

But the state of the union isn't all wine and roses, cakes decorated with two brides or grandmothers finally able to give their grandsons the heirloom china.

For one thing, in many states, same-sex couples won't see any legal benefits from getting married in California or Massachusetts. Indeed, Lambda Legal reported earlier this summer that same-sex couples from Wisconsin may face harsh legal penalties if they get hitched on one of the coasts. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the penalty for a marriage "that's prohibited or declared void in Wisconsin" can range up to a $10,000 fine and up to a nine-month prison sentence -- though Wisconsin prosecutors seem uninterested in using what one called "scarce resources" to prosecute same-sex couples. Still, the Wisconsin law (apparently passed in order to discourage underage heterosexual couples from marrying in other states) indicates one of the many concerns progressive voters felt when the California law passed.

It's not that they didn't want same sex couples to be able to marry. They were simply worried about what the New York Times reported in 2004 as an increase in conservative voters who voted for Bush at the same time they voted for state initiatives banning same sex marriage.

During the November election in 2004, 11 states -- including Oregon, Michigan and Ohio, which were considered battleground states between Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry -- passed initiatives barring state recognition of same-sex marriages (and in some states, barring state recognition of civil unions or domestic partnerships as well). Though Michigan and Oregon both passed their anti-marriage state initiatives, both states also went for Kerry.

But as you probably recall, Bush won a close election after Kerry decided not to dispute contested results in Ohio. Conventional wisdom then said that Republican strategists like Karl Rove used 2004's various gay marriage issues as a way to get out the money and get out the vote for their presidential and Congressional candidates. Some religious conservatives, including former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer, have since claimed that the California Supreme Court decision will likewise affect the 2008 presidential election.

Even an L.A. Times reporter who wrote about the decision weighed in, stating that the Supreme Court "tossed a highly emotional issue into the election year." Before the decision, a conservative group wrote an initiative banning same-sex marriage. It will appear on the November ballot in California.

A quick fact check, however, shows that conventional wisdom may have been wrong to begin with. Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, wrote in a June op-ed for TheHill.com (an online Congressional newspaper) that of the 11 states with anti-same sex marriage initiatives on the ballot, "no one could reasonably assert" that Kerry would have won eight of the states no matter what else was on the ballot. Kerry won two of the others, and, Mellman says, in Ohio, four times as many people voted on the presidential race but not on the anti-marriage initiative as voted on the initiative but not the presidential race, indicating that the race itself was the important draw. In other words, he concludes, "while casting initiatives as the secret determinant of presidential elections makes for an interesting narrative, it is largely a work of fiction."

In Oregon, an anti-civil union initiative failed to make the ballot this year, thanks in part to LGBT civil rights group Basic Rights Oregon. BRO Director Jeana Frazzini says that same-sex marriage initiatives are highly unlikely to affect the presidential election. "I think there are some pretty major issues on the minds of voters that are going to take precedence," she says. On Aug. 14, just after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals removed any chance for the initiative to land on the Oregon ballot, Frazzini wrote to BRO supporters that the decision freed time and money to help work on other issues in Oregon -- like opposing an initiative outlawing ESL classes -- along with supporting California LGBT groups in their fight against Prop. 8.

Even in places that coastal progressives view as conservative, some politicians don't think the religious right will be able to alter the election because of same-sex marriage. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told the rightwing news group CNSNews.com that he believes Iowa's voters "care about the economic issues and the health care issues and getting out of Iraq," not "hot-button issues" like same-sex marriage. That's important because Iowa may be one of the next same-sex marriage battleground states: In August, 2007, a district court declared Iowa's law defining marriage as between one man and one woman "the most intrusive means by the state to regulate marriage" and struck down the law. One male couple married in Iowa before the district court judge issued a stay on his ruling and sent the case to Iowa's Supreme Court, which has not yet issued a decision.

But it's not only liberals and Democrats thinking that same-sex marriage won't be an issue in 2008. Karl Rove told the L.A. Times on Aug. 14 that "the bigger issues will be the economy, terrorism, healthcare, energy." Three states now have anti-same-sex marriage initiatives on their ballots in the fall: Arizona, Republican presidential candidate John McCain's home state; California, where an Obama win seems almost certain; and Florida, the one possible swing state in the mix. The L.A. Times notes that Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican, has "distanced" himself from Florida's proposition, but he recently changed his mind (he's rumored to be seeking the VP nomination) and said he supports Amendment 2, which would define marriage as between one man and one woman in Florida's constitution.

Polls on California's Proposition 8, which would overturn the California Supreme Court decision, have varied. The most recent, a Field Poll released on July 18, showed that 51 percent of likely voters said they would vote no, while 42 percent said they would vote yes. (A no vote upholds the legality of same-sex marriage.) Perhaps that's partially because of state Attorney General Jerry Brown, who altered the title of the initiative after the Supreme Court ruling -- it had been "Limit on Marriage" when same-sex marriage wasn't legal, and he changed it to "Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry." Though backers of Prop. 8 challenged that change, two court rulings in Brown's favor convinced them to drop the challenge. Details of the Field Poll revealed splits that politicians and LGBT activists will no doubt take into account during the campaign: among voters who knew someone gay or lesbian, the opposition to Prop. 8 was 54 percent to 40 percent; African-Americans, Asians and white non-Hispanic voters were against the proposition and Latinos for it, both by a margin of five to four; and although Protestant voters were largely in support, Catholic voters were evenly split.

"Polls are notoriously unreliable," says Dan Savage, "but all the movement is in our direction." Seattleite Savage, who writes the "Savage Love" sex advice column and is a strong advocate for same-sex marriage, doesn't feel purely optimistic because of recent history -- states locking the definition of marriage into their constitutions, which is hard to undo. But, Savage says, "with gas approaching $5 a gallon and the mortgage crisis, hopefully people are less easily whipped up with bullshit social issues and right-wing fear and smear tactics."

Meanwhile, as states across the country watch what happens in California, Jeana Frazzini of Oregon says the issue has moved on from 2004's "political football." Now, she says, "the dialogue is happening on a personal level. Folks are talking about what it means for their families." Because of the 2004 ballot initiative that amended Oregon's constitution, she says that what's going on in California has a limited impact on couples in Oregon, "but it gives people that sense of hope that things are headed in the right direction."

Suzi Steffen is a freelance writer in Eugene, Oregon and an arts editor at the Eugene (Ore.) Weekly.

 
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