Same-sex marriage ignites a fury across the U.S.
February 21 2004 1:00 AM ET
San Francisco's decision to issue same-sex marriage licenses by the hundreds is reverberating nationwide as gay rights groups celebrate, their adversaries hope for a backlash, and politicians wrestle with how to respond. Mayors in Chicago, Salt Lake City, and upstate New York spoke favorably of the weddings, but many politicians--including some liberal Democrats--are unsettled by the more than 2,900 gay and lesbian couples being wed over the past week at San Francisco's City Hall.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California), an outspoken supporter of gay rights, issued a terse statement that offered no praise for San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), one of three openly gay members of Congress, suggested Newsom's action could undermine long-term efforts to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts and fuel support for a federal constitutional amendment banning such unions.
On the Republican side, President Bush said the San Francisco weddings troubled him and could influence his decision on whether to support the proposed constitutional amendment. Also, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger urged the city to stop the same-sex weddings, saying, "Californians spoke on the issue of same-sex marriage when they overwhelmingly approved California's law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman."
Some conservative groups, however, are criticizing both Bush and Schwarzenegger for being too timid. "A real Terminator would end the anarchy by enforcing the law he swore an oath to uphold," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America. LaRue's organization said the Justice Department and California officials should consider launching criminal proceedings against Newsom and his staff for performing illegal marriages.
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said it had analyzed relevant California laws and determined that threats of criminal charges "are groundless and should be ignored." "These kinds of wild assertions...seem designed only to frighten couples and city workers," said Jon Davidson, a Los Angeles-based senior counsel for Lambda.
Even before the San Francisco weddings, same-sex marriage had emerged as a volatile election-year topic, largely because of the Massachusetts supreme judicial court's ruling in November that the state must start recognizing gay marriages as of May 17. "Where's the rule of law?" asked Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. "You have judges acting like legislators in Massachusetts, and you have a mayor acting like a judge in San Francisco. They need to go back and read their job descriptions." He predicted a surge of support for the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriage as couples from at least 22 other states who went to San Francisco to get married return home and seek recognition of their unions.
There were no immediate reports of other elected officials emulating Newsom by authorizing same-sex marriages. A spokesman for New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said that, though a supporter of gay rights, the mayor had no intention of following Newsom's path. "The mayor does not believe in subverting the law to make a political point," spokesman Ed Skyler said.
Matt Coles, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, said the Massachusetts case, rather than the San Francisco action, is more likely to survive legal challenges and lead to permanently recognized same-sex marriages. "However, this fight ultimately is about what America thinks is fair, and in that sense Mayor Newsom has done a great service," he said. "Americans watched on television as hundreds and hundreds of people stood in the pouring rain all night to get married, and a fair number of them probably thought, Gee, we didn't have to go through that."