The Gay State-by-State Marriage Race? (Second of Two Parts)
Whither California, the nation? That was the question asked in the first of this two-part series on the state of gay marriage in America.
Evan Wolfson, the civil rights attorney and executive director of Freedom to Marry, has been as instrumental as anyone in furthering the cause of gay marriage in this country. Wolfson doesn't buy the argument about a social conservative backlash against gay marriage. He believes such fears are unfounded and ill defined. Instead, he sees there are two distinct and competing visions of America at play in this battle.
"Opponents of marriage equality have the anti-choice, anti equality agenda and we have the vision of a nation living up to its promise of equality guaranteed by the constitution," he said.
If the leaders of that highly organized and well funded opposition to same sex marriage in California is any indication of that competing vision, Wolfson appears to be correct.
As was widely expected, on June 3, California Secretary of State Debra Bown confirmed that marriage equality opponents had successfully gathered over one million signatures which allows placement of a proposition on the November ballot that if passed, would overturn the California Supreme court decision.
Leading the local opposition to the court decision are a pair of Southern California businessmen, Howard Ahmanson, owner of Fieldstead & Co and Christian radio magnate Ed Atsinger. Both are evangelical Christians according to a May 27 report from Capital Weekly, a newspaper that covers California's state government.
But a virtual who's who of familiar right wing social conservative organizations have also converged on California and are making the overturning of the California court decision a priority. "There are a number of national religious right groups that are lending their resources to this effort," said Peter Montgomery, spokesperson at the People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington DC.
"Many of these groups have their own networks of pastors and churches that agree with them on a number of social issues, and one of those happens to be gay rights," he said.
Montgomery describes a coalition of like-minded individuals and well funded national organizations like 'Focus on the Family," "Coral Ridge" and "Concerned Women of America," which have swooped into the state at the behest of local social conservatives and leaders. They then re-brand themselves with a new, more socially benign public identity, which in California's case, is "Protect Marriage." Later, they created an easy-to-find and navigate website, Protectmarriage.org. The site's easily digestible information and fundraising apparatus is there to solicit donations from anyone not already connected to rightwing organizations.
Under the auspices of marriage "protection" the shadow group engages in grassroots efforts in communities, airwaves, other media outlets and churches throughout the state. Montgomery describes a similar scenario taking place in Florida where a similar ballot initiative will be voted on this November.
Although the efforts by social conservatives presents what might be seen as daunting obstacles, Evan Wolfson, like Brad Sears believes this sort of battleground is the difficult path to full marriage equality. "The classic pattern of civil rights advancement in America is patchwork," he said.
New York may well remove exclusion from marriage as early as next year, having already agreed to recognize marriages from out of state. New Jersey will likely move to full marriage; the State Legislature passed a civil union bill at the behest of a court ruling, but there seems to be near-universal agreement that it is not fulfilling the court's mandate of a "separate but equal" institution to marriage. Before this year is out, a Connecticut court decision like California's may mandate the same thing-full marriage equality.
The bi-coastal inroads towards justice are a long tedious process. On the surface, such a tedious, state-by-state battle may not be the most pleasant way to get there, but that is the way advances in civil rights usually happen.
When asked to look into a crystal ball, Wolfson remained optimistic.
"By this time next year, as many as three, four or five states will have probably ended exclusion from marriage which means we may have up to a third of the nation's population living in states where same sex couples are marrying alongside different sex couples," he predicted.
"That creates a context in which there will be more progress state by state building eventually to a national resolution in favor of equality," he said.