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California and the West

Measure to Ban Gay Marriages OKd for Ballot

Politics: Initiative resembles failed bill that would have denied recognition of such unions performed in other states. It will go before voters in March 2000.


SACRAMENTO — A potentially divisive initiative that would prohibit same-sex marriages in California has qualified for the March 2000 ballot, Secretary of State Bill Jones announced Tuesday.

The measure, officially labeled the "definition of marriage" initiative, would mandate the state of California to only recognize as valid a marriage between a man and a woman.

Jones said the proposal needed 433,269 voter signatures to qualify for the March 7, 2000 ballot. He said the measure has at least 482,044 valid signatures out of 677,000 collected.

The measure is virtually the same as an unsuccessful 1996 bill sponsored by state Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), who is also the sponsor of the initiative. The bill would have denied recognition in California of same-sex marriages performed in other states.

At the time, a court in Hawaii had signaled that it intended to rule in favor of same-sex marriages there. However, the issue became moot when Hawaii voters recently enacted a law that will recognize marriage only between heterosexuals.

Knight said Tuesday that despite the vote in Hawaii, the debate over recognizing same-sex marriages is underway in other states, including Vermont and New York. Under federal law, he said, California would be obligated to recognize the validity of such unions unless there is a law against it.

Knight said his initiative would preserve a traditional definition of marriage.

"If we change the definition, then we take the one man and one woman out of it. If three people get together and decide they want to get married, the courts are going to have a hard time denying that relationship," he said.

But influential Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), a lesbian who opposed Knight's bill in 1996, said Knight will face tough opposition in the campaign.

"He is going to take his particular talent for demonizing gays and lesbian people into the initiative process," Kuehl said. "He is going to have a major fight on his hands. . . . There are thousands of people in California who will be willing to stand up this time and say, 'This is not a good thing.' "

Kuehl said the notion of gay marriage is a "hot button" issue with voters around the country, but "it is important to point out that no gay or lesbian people in California are pushing this issue."

She said that the political right has selected gay marriage as a last-ditch issue because it has lost on other issues, including overturning laws that prohibit discrimination against gays in employment and education.

Knight said he anticipates a hard-fought campaign. He said the initiative petitions were circulated among church members and by paid signature gatherers. He said the signature campaign cost about $500,000.

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