Yesterday was a happy day for Americans who believe in human rights, the Constitution, and love. California Judge Vaughn Walker overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, which had been passed by voters in 2008. In doing so, he upheld core American values, including equal protection under the law.
For Americans who believe in traditional values, the ruling is also happy news, for it demonstrates the enduring importance of marriage. Despite dramatic changes in gender roles, the economy, and culture—most men are no longer sole breadwinners nor most women stay-at-home mothers (in fact, many husbands now do household chores and some stay home to raise the children while wives bring home the paycheck)—marriage endures.
Its persistence tells us something. It tells us that the public commitment of two partners, the legal protections that marriage ensures, and the satisfactions and challenges it brings constitute a fundamental human right. In his decision Judge Walker rightly recognized this to be so.
His decision affirms the fact that we are a constitutional democracy where basic human rights are not up for a vote. This truth was echoed by Episcopal Bishop and CAP Senior Fellow Gene Robinson, who told USA Today that he’d grown up in the segregated South where the courts had overturned Jim Crow laws before public opinion caught up.
Regarding marriage equality, Robinson said: “The fight is not over but the progress forward has certainly been strengthened by this. The most important thing is that the majority of the people may not always get it right. That’s one reason we have the courts.”
Following yesterday’s ruling conservative opponents—many representing organized religion—bemoaned the decision. The Catholic Bishops, leaders of the Mormon Church, the Family Research Council, and others relied on outdated claims to express their disapproval. They said that “marriage between a man and woman is the bedrock of society,” and that the role of marriage is to “bring together men and women for the reproduction of the human race.” They said that “legal recognition of same-sex marriage poses a grave threat to the fundamental civil right of religious freedom.”
Never mind that the facts dispute their claims—and that these facts came out clearly during the California trial. Many of them are included in Judge Walker’s decision.
It is important to say that oppositional conservative faith voices are decreasing in number and influence. More and more, faith communities are speaking out and standing up for marriage equality and full human rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
In fact, a number of religious leaders issued statements supporting yesterday’s ruling. Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles said, “Justice is advancing, thanks to today’s ruling affirming Californians’ constitutional right to marriage in faithful, same-gender relationships.” The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said that Judge Walker’s decision “reaffirms the strong commitment to equality upon which our nation is built.”
Further, a Public Religion Research Institute poll last month shows that attitudes have measurably changed in California since Proposition 8 was passed in 2008. Now only one in five Californians think its passage was a good thing for the state. And one in four Californians say they’ve become more supportive of gay and lesbian rights over the last five years, with support significantly growing among black Protestants and Latino Catholics. In fact, solid majorities of Latino Catholics and white mainline Protestants say they would now vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. Add their views to those of other Californians and you get a majority telling pollsters that if a vote similar to Proposition 8 were held tomorrow they would legalize same-sex marriage.
Even religious groups not yet at the point of recognizing marriage equality believe in antidiscrimination laws that protect gays and lesbians, and they say gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the military. Majorities also believe that same-sex couples should be able to legally adopt children.
One of the poll’s most interesting findings was the “significant number of respondents who report they would support marriage equality if the laws offer reassurance about their religious freedom concerns and clarify the distinction between civil and religious marriage.”
Such concerns should be quickly allayed. In no way does the California decision encroach upon religious freedom or conflate civil and religious marriage. No clergy, for example, will be forced to perform same-sex marriage services. And no house of worship will be forced to host same-sex marriage ceremonies. But just as the religious liberty of marriage equality opponents is protected in this decision, also protected is the religious liberty of marriage equality supporters. Gay and lesbian people who seek to be legally married should not be forbidden to do so by those who impose their theological doctrines on a religiously diverse and highly pluralistic public.
Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and head of Interfaith Alliance, said in response to the ruling: “America’s diverse religious landscape leaves room for a variety of theological perspectives on same-gender marriage; indeed, some faiths enthusiastically support it and others vehemently oppose it. Under this ruling, as with any constitutionally based marriage equality law, no religion would ever be required to condone same-gender marriage, and no member of the clergy would ever be required to perform a wedding ceremony not in accordance with his or her religious beliefs.”
Appeals will be filed in the coming days, and arguments made on both sides of the issue. Judge Walker’s ruling will likely end up before the Supreme Court unless Californians vote to overturn Proposition 8. For now, though, gay and lesbian Californians—and their friends and families—can celebrate yesterday’s ruling, which is far more than an abstract legal decision. It is the opening of a door to include more Americans in the promises of our founders. Along with life and liberty, they promised the pursuit of happiness.
Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.