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Governor Says Law Permitting Gay Marriage Would Be 'Fine'

Schwarzenegger also tells 'Tonight Show' host that he opposes Bush's proposed amendment.

March 02, 2004|Joe Mathews, Peter Nicholas and Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said on national television Monday night that it would be "fine with me" if state law were changed to permit same-sex marriages.

In an interview with Jay Leno on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," Schwarzenegger also strongly rejected President Bush's call for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. "I think those issues should be left to the state, so I have no use for a constitutional amendment or change in that at all," he said.

The governor reiterated his opposition to the decision by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying city officials should abide by the state law.

But when Leno asked, "Would you have any problem if they changed the law?" the governor replied: "No, I don't have a problem. Let the court decide. Let the people decide."

After noting that voters had approved Proposition 22 in recent years to limit marriage to a man and a woman, Schwarzenegger indicated he was open at least to an initiative to legalize same-sex marriage.

"If the people change their minds and they want to overrule that, that's fine with me."

The author of Proposition 22, Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale) said he was surprised at Schwarzenegger's comments and disappointed by the governor's overall handling of the gay marriage issue.

If Schwarzenegger announced support for gay marriage legislation, it would pass, Knight added.

"If he says he'll sign it," said Knight, "it'll whistle through there."

Former Gov. Gray Davis, who has socialized with Schwarzenegger in recent weeks, made a surprise appearance on Monday's show, and the two exchanged a few quips.

The former movie star said he had been advising Davis about a possible acting career.

"He's helped me a lot with acting, particularly with my pronunciation," Davis said.-

Schwarzenegger's interview with Leno gave the first indication that the governor is not opposed to gay marriage at a moral level, and that if Californians wanted to change the law, he would not be an obstacle.

When asked, Schwarzenegger has spoken in favor of gay rights since his days as a bodybuilder in the 1970s. He has also expressed support for California's existing domestic partnership law. But as governor he had largely sidestepped questions about the fairness of barring same-sex couples from marrying.

His only previous statement, during a recall campaign interview with talk show host Sean Hannity, appeared to be a malapropism: "I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman."

Asked last week if he had voted for Proposition 22 when it was on the ballot in 2000, the governor said: "I'll be honest with you. I can't remember."

In the past two weeks, Schwarzenegger has staked out the position that what is chiefly offensive to him about the marriages in San Francisco is the violation of law.

"He sees this primarily as a matter of the rule of law," his communications director, Rob Stutzman, said in an interview last week.

Asked Monday night about Schwarzenegger's statement on Leno, Stutzman said: "I think the governor's words speak for themselves."

The stance hews closely to the governor's position on most controversial issues. As the self-proclaimed "People's Governor," he has said he wants to follow the wishes of the public as expressed at the ballot box.

But his comments were a notable departure in tone for the governor. Over the past two weeks, Schwarzenegger has suggested that San Francisco's granting of licenses was a threat to "civil order." On Feb. 22, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," he said of the scene in San Francisco, "We see riots and we see protests and we see people clashing. The next thing we know is there are injured or dead people, and we don't want to have that." San Francisco authorities disputed that, saying there have been no riots connected to the issue.

On the same show, he added: "We cannot have, all of a sudden now, mayors go and hand out licenses for various different things. If it is -- you know, in San Francisco, it's the license for marriage of same sex. Maybe the next thing is another city that hands out licenses for assault weapons. And someone else hands out licenses for selling drugs."

Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who is no relation to Jay Leno, last month introduced a bill to legalize gay marriage in California. Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the bill.

The assemblyman said he was pleased to hear that the governor opposed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. But, he said, he saw Schwarzenegger's statements "let the court decide ... let the people decide" as contradictory.

"Constitutional issues need to be reviewed and decided by courts and not left to majority opinion polls or cast ballots," said Leno. "Otherwise, few in this country would have any civil rights."

Knight, on the other hand, said he was disappointed in Schwarzenegger's inability to halt the marriages in San Francisco.

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