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Mark Leno

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A Giant Leap Forward for Equality

Posted: 09/21/10 05:46 PM ET

Nearly two years after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that the divisive measure denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry is unconstitutional, violating both due process and equal protection rights. In a landmark decision, the first ever on this issue in federal court, Judge Vaughn Walker upheld justice and equality, concluding there is no rational basis for preventing marriage between same-sex couples.

In his 136-page decision, Judge Walker eloquently dispels the myths promoted by Prop 8, including that heterosexual couples are somehow better than same-sex couples and more deserving of the universal recognition of marriage and that families led by two parents of the same gender are inadequate. Walker's decision echoes the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's 2004 findings when it ruled that there is no constitutional basis for denying same-sex couples marriage licenses, and stated that by doing so we perpetuate a "destructive stereotype that same-sex relationships are inherently unstable and inferior to opposite-sex relationships and are not worthy of respect." Do we really want our government determining that some people love better than others?

Based on overwhelming evidence presented at trial, Walker concluded that Prop 8 likely passed due to a "desire to advance the belief that opposite-sex couples are morally superior to same-sex couples" and that the proposition "enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples."

While public opinion in California and across the nation continues to shift more in support of marriage equality, the moral opinions of the masses should not dictate such important issues, especially when it involves fundamental rights. In 1948, California became the first state in the nation to end the ban on interracial marriage, although about 90 percent of Americans at that time opposed these unions. As with marriage for same-sex couples, the California Supreme Court's 1948 decision was controversial at that time, even though that ban clearly trampled on the rights of targeted minority groups and violated equal protection laws.

In 2004 I had the distinct honor of marrying Marvin Burrows and his lifelong partner Bill Swenor during the short time period when San Francisco granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Marvin and Bill had met as teenagers in the 1950s, fell in love, and spent 51 years together as a couple.

One year after Marvin and Bill were married, Bill unexpectedly died of a heart attack. While the men were domestic partners, their marriage license from San Francisco had been invalidated. Because they were not legally married, Marvin was denied Bill's pension, veteran and social security benefits and his health insurance suddenly ended. As a result of Bill and Marvin's inability to have their half century relationship honored and validated with a marriage license, in the midst of grieving Bill's death Marvin was now homeless. Why would we want to kick senior citizens to the curb for the crime of loving someone of the same gender? While Marvin turned his despair into action and became an outspoken advocate for marriage equality, Marvin and Bill's tragic story demonstrates the cruel and unfair consequences of inequality.

While we know the legal challenge to Prop 8 will continue to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Walker's ruling is a giant leap forward for justice and equality. It deflates the prejudiced stereotypes that have long demonized gay men and lesbians and relationships between same-sex couples and their families. It attacks the blatant lies and fears that were fostered by the supporters of Prop 8 during the 2008 campaign. It upholds the U.S. Constitution's promise of equal protection under law and restates that this fundamental right cannot be denied to any one group of people, regardless of the electorate's majority opinion.

Finally, the August 4 U.S. District Court decision reiterates a fact that opponents of Prop 8 and supporters of marriage equality have long asserted. Denying loving same-sex couples the freedom to marry unfairly promotes inequality and the perception of inferiority. In the words of Judge Walker, "opposite sex-couples are not better than their same-sex counterparts; instead, as partners, parents and citizens, opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples are equal."