In a major victory for gay rights activists, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday that a voter initiative banning same-sex marriage in California violated the Constitution's equal protection and due process rights clauses.
After a five-month wait, 9th Circuit District Court Judge Vaughn Walker offered a 136-page decision in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, firmly rejecting Proposition 8, which was passed by voters in November 2008.
"Although Proposition 8 fails to possess even a rational basis, the evidence presented at trial shows that gays and lesbians are the type of minority strict scrutiny was designed to protect," Walker ruled.
"Plaintiffs do not seek recognition of a new right. To characterize plaintiffs' objective as "the right to same-sex marriage" would suggest that plaintiffs seek something different from what opposite-sex couples across the state enjoy -- namely, marriage. Rather, plaintiffs ask California to recognize their relationships for what they are: marriages."
"Proposition 8 places the force of law behind stigmas against gays and lesbians, including: gays and lesbians do not have intimate relationships similar to heterosexual couples; gays and lesbians are not as good as heterosexuals; and gay and lesbian relationships do not deserve the full recognition of society."
The judgment was the first offered by a federal court with respect to laws banning gay marriage at the state level and it promises to have massive reverberations across the political and judicial landscape. The decision is now expected to head to the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court, also based in San Francisco, for appeal, and from there to the Supreme Court. (Gay marriages will not resume immediately in California; the decision has been stayed until August 6 to consider arguments regarding an appeal.)
In the interim, however, Walker's ruling gave gay-rights activists a second occasion to rejoice in less than a month. In July, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as one man and one woman, was also unconstitutional.
"Today's decision is by no means California's first milestone, nor our last, on America's road to equality and freedom for all people," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement.
A White House official emailed reporters, "The President has spoken out in opposition to Proposition 8 because it is divisive and discriminatory. He will continue to promote equality for LGBT Americans."
"It is not only a home run, it is a grand slam," said Jon Davidson the legal director at Lambda Legal, the country's largest and oldest LBGT legal organization. "This decisions is not going to be the end of this fight, the proponents have already said they will appeal. But I think the factual findings that the judge has made and his clear and detailed analysis will be important to frame the case as it goes up on appeal."
"This is part of an educational process that is going on in this country. When judges look outside of the political process and they go through the evidence and treat arguments as more than just sound bites they come to the conclusion that withholding marriage from same sex couples hurts them and their families and doesn't help anyone. That helps move the conversation."
Wednesday's decision came after lengthy, substantive, and at times provocative legal deliberations in which an odd-couple pairing of lawyers took on the cause of overturning the same-sex marriage ban. Theodore Olson and David Boies -- direct adversaries in the 2000 Supreme Court presidential recount battle -- made the case that Prop 8 violated both the equal protection and due process clauses of the constitution. The law, the two argued, was discriminatory on the basis of both sexual orientation and on the basis of sex in addition to violating the principle that marriage was a personal liberty.
"The Supreme Court has said that marriage is the most important relation in life. Now that's being withheld from the plaintiffs," Olson said in his closing argument. "Marriage, the Supreme Court has said again and again, is a component of liberty, privacy, spirituality and autonomy."
Representing the defense, another Washington-based lawyer, Charles Cooper leaned heavily on the social impact of codifying gay marriage, arguing that "marriage is to channel the sexual behavior between men and women into a procreative union."
In deciding the case, Walker offered a variety of findings that may be as important as the ruling itself. Among them were the following:
- "Sexual orientation is commonly discussed as a characteristic of the individual. Sexual orientation is fundamental to a person's identity and is a distinguishing characteristic that defines gays and lesbians as a discrete group. Proponents' assertion that sexual orientation cannot be defined is contrary to the weight of the evidence."
Perhaps the most important political finding that Walker made was his conclusion that the fact that Prop 8 passed as a voter initiative was irrelevant as "fundamental rights may not be submitted to [a] vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."