SACRAMENTO -- The fight over homosexual marriage is raging across the country, but leaders of the California Assembly have conspicuously avoided the issue by delaying a vote on a bill that would legalize gay and lesbian matrimony.
The delay is wrapped up in election-year politics and complicated by a skittishness among some moderate Democrats to tackle a controversial issue. Leaders also said pending court cases could override the Legislature, and there is a minor split over strategy among gay and lesbian lawmakers.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said in an interview that the measure would eventually get a hearing in the Assembly but was being delayed because the lower house was focusing on other issues, such as reforming the state's workers' compensation system. He said debating gay marriage now could be a distraction.
"I think the question is timing," Nunez said. "We want to make sure it doesn't take away from the focus and attention that workers' comp has been receiving lately. I think it's a question of when the hearing is going to take place."
But some majority Democrats are concerned about an approaching deadline. The bill must pass a policy committee by April 23; otherwise it would need Republican support to override house rules and proceed. But getting votes from conservative Republicans would be difficult. The Legislature went on spring break Thursday and is not scheduled to return until April 12.
Only last year, the Legislature approved -- and former Gov. Gray Davis signed -- a host of new rights for domestic partners that are scheduled to take effect next year. Some lawmakers hailed it as an important step toward one day legalizing gay and lesbian marriage, even though California law currently defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
But in February, a rapid-fire series of events brought new national focus to the issue. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to begin approving marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples. Lawsuits were filed to block the licenses, and President Bush even called for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
At the state level, Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) submitted his gay marriage bill on Feb. 12, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a national TV audience that he had no problem with gay marriage as long as the public or the courts supported it.
Now there are differing opinions even within the gay and lesbian caucus over how to proceed.
"The landscape changes every day. I think it's just a strategic question of what is the best way to move the ball forward," said Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), a member of the gay and lesbian caucus.
"We have to position ourselves best in the courts, defeat the constitutional amendment, protect [the domestic partnership act] and let the human face that has been created by the pent-up demand for marriage go forward," Laird added. "The marriage bill may well play a role in that, and that is what we have been wrestling with."
Leno's Assembly bill, AB 1967, would declare that two men or two women over 18 "are capable of consenting to and consummating marriage." In addition, Leno has proposed an Assembly resolution condemning any proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages, but it also has not been assigned to a committee.
A competing Republican resolution, declaring that the state should "protect and defend the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman," was sent to the Assembly Judiciary Committee two weeks ago. A hearing date on that resolution is pending.
Assembly committees have been steadily working on dozens of bills introduced this year, including measures ranging from gender discrimination to motor scooter regulations. But the Assembly Rules Committee, which controls the flow of legislation, has held Leno's bill for weeks.
Leno said he was optimistic that the measure would get a hearing.
"I can't tell you if I know for certain the law will change this year, but you've got to start somewhere," Leno said, "and you can't keep putting it off until you've got it all lined up. A first step is having a hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee."
Nunez said Leno would have to work out a schedule with the head of the Rules Committee, Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando). Montanez, who signed up as a coauthor of Leno's bill, said she was waiting for the right time to refer the bill to a committee but declined to speculate on when it might be released.
"The bill will be referred at the appropriate time and that could be at any time. The discussions are ongoing and fluid," she said. "We are going to continue to work with Mark on drafting the best strategy and making progress and not just pushing a bill that is not going to see the light of day."
The last time the Legislature considered legalizing gay and lesbian marriage was in 1991, when then-Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco) -- now Senate president pro tem -- introduced a bill. The measure was heard in the Assembly Judiciary Committee and failed to get a single vote.
Leno said he thought his bill would pass the Assembly Judiciary Committee, since five members of the panel already had signed on as coauthors. He said it would then go to the Appropriations Committee and that after that it probably would be up to "leadership" to decide if a full vote of the Assembly was in order.
Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), a member of the gay and lesbian caucus, said she expected the bill to get a hearing because Nunez had said he believed it should. Goldberg said she doubted there would be delay because of court cases.