Californians on Tuesday declared that marriage should remain reserved for couples of the opposite sex, approving a ballot measure that denies gays access to an institution many covet in their quest for full equality.
Proposition 22 triumphed in all regions of the state except parts of the Bay Area, overcoming opposition from President Clinton, Gov. Gray Davis and even moderate Republicans such as Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
The broad-based support delighted the measure's author, Republican state Sen. William "Pete" Knight of Palmdale, who said the voters' message is that "California is not ready for a marriage between a man and a man."
Surrounded by cheering supporters at a Sacramento hotel, Knight, who believes that allowing gays to wed would "violate natural law," added that despite what critics said, his proposal "was not divisive, it was not mean-spirited, it was not bigoted."
Opponents called the initiative's passage a painful setback for gay and lesbian rights. But they also said the bruising campaign had unified the homosexual community as a political force in a way unprecedented since 1978, when a ballot measure sought unsuccessfully to bar gays from working in public schools.
"Every march for equality is three steps forward and one step backward, and this is a step backward," said Mike Marshall, manager of the No on 22 campaign. "But the vast majority of voters under 40 voted against the initiative. This is a generational issue. We're patient." In fact, however, a Times exit poll showed that voters in all age groups supported the initiative, although younger voters were more closely divided than those over 45.
Just 14 words long, Proposition 22 was one of the shortest initiatives ever placed on a California ballot. Yet it ignited an emotional $16-million campaign that set church against church, neighbor against neighbor and relative against relative.
The most visible drama surrounded the personal feud between Knight and his gay son, who have been all but estranged since David Knight revealed his homosexuality four years ago. Initiative foes accused the senator of sponsoring the measure as a way to cope with his family angst, while David Knight denounced the initiative as "hateful" and "cruel."
"The father-son thing . . . created a very personal subtext you don't see very often in these wars," said Darry Sragow, a Los Angeles political consultant.
Pete Knight, a conservative former fighter pilot elected to the Legislature in 1992, took Proposition 22 to voters after failing to win passage of similar bills in Sacramento. He said his goal was simply to close a legal loophole that would have forced California to recognize same-sex marriages if they were someday sanctioned by another state.
Many gays and lesbians, however, viewed Proposition 22 as an ominous symbol of homophobia--and as a referendum on their way of life. They predicted that the fate of the measure would send a national signal about public attitudes toward gays as they continue to press for equality under the law.
"When people in a state of 30 million make a statement on an anti-gay initiative," Marshall said, "it attracts attention."
The measure comes at a time when the traditional American family has undergone considerable change. Over the past generation, growth in divorce, common-law relationships and the ranks of singles has redefined family. One study found that only 26% of U.S. households were made up of married couples with children in 1998, compared with 45% in the early 1970s.
Against that backdrop, same-sex couples have sued in several states for the right to marry. In December, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state must allow gays to wed or give them equal benefits some other way. The Vermont Legislature appears poised to approve a domestic partnership system.
Over the last several years, 30 states have passed preemptive laws similar to Proposition 22. Knight says he took up the cause because he believes that if gays are allowed to say "I do," it will weaken the institution of marriage.
In placing the proposition on the ballot, he received financial help from conservative Christian businessman Howard Ahmanson, a former trustee of an organization whose founder advocates the death penalty for homosexuality.
Initiative opponents argued that the connection with such a controversial figure amounted to proof that Proposition 22 backers had a hidden motive--rolling back legal protections for gays.
Despite the emotions aroused by the measure, both sides waged a fairly restrained campaign. Eager to avoid being labeled homophobic, proponents scarcely mentioned homosexuals in most of their ads, focusing on happy scenes of weddings and families.
Strategically, the "no" side had a bigger challenge, given surveys showing that a majority of Californians oppose same-sex marriages. To woo some of them, strategists tried to portray the measure as discriminatory and a government intrusion into private lives.