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TIM RUTTEN

The price of 'protecting' marriage

June 04, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

Two things already can be said about the pro- posed state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that on Tuesday qualified for the Nov. 4 ballot. One is that the coming campaign is sure to be nasty and divisive; the other is that recent history suggests that such electoral struggles over fundamental rights are likely to have unintended consequences.

It's easy to foresee a bitter campaign. Any time one group of Californians uses the ballot box as a tool to have another group declared less or different than everyone else -- and, therefore, entitled to fewer rights -- people take it personally and things get rough.

Those pushing the "Marriage Protection Amendment" have at their disposal the language of personal faith and religious tradition, which they surely will make the most of. But the genius of the American system is that it recognizes majoritarian tyranny as a threat to liberty right alongside power concentrated in the hands of the few. That gives a besieged minority, which this ballot initiative surely makes of gays and lesbians, a well-tested political vocabulary with which to make the case against injustice.

You'd think that when it comes to an issue as fundamental as a person's right to marry the partner of his or her choice, mass movements and broad coalitions would be at work, pushing the debate. Actually, the opposite is true. Protect Marriage, the organization seeking to overturn the recent decision by the California Supreme Court, presented the secretary of state with a petition bearing 1.1 million signatures -- and yet it is hardly a mass movement. California allows professional contractors that pay people to gather signatures for political measures, so anyone with enough money to spend can get an initiative on the ballot.

In this case, most of the money came from two wealthy Orange County residents who also happen to be fervent evangelical Christians. Billionaire Howard Ahmanson donated $400,000 through his Fieldstead & Co., and Edward Atsinger, owner of a chain of Christian radio stations, gave $12,500. (Each man previously contributed $100,000 to Proposition 22, the statute struck down by the Supreme Court's May 15 ruling.) Another significant contributor -- $133,000 -- is Colorado-based Focus on the Family. Its founder, James Dobson, is a leader in the religious right's anti-gay wing.

The most recent public opinion surveys hardly suggest a groundswell of support for the amendment. A Los Angeles Times/KTLA poll taken in the two days following the Supreme Court's decision found 54% of registered voters opposed same-sex marriage, while only 35% supported it. However, a Field Poll conducted over two weeks and with a larger sample found that 54% of the respondents opposed banning same-sex marriage, while 40% supported such a prohibition.

Susan Pinkus, who directs The Times' survey, thinks the discrepancy between the two polls can be explained by the fact that the Field respondents had more time to weigh the arguments pro and con and to consider their response. She says both polls reflect a "fluid climate of public opinion" in which "there's a continual softening of opposition to gay marriage." Even The Times' survey found that 54% of Californians do not believe that same-sex relationships involve a moral issue; half believe that legal recognition of same-sex marriage is "inevitable."

That may be true. The Field poll found that 68% of voters aged 18 to 29 approve of same-sex marriage. The Times/KTLA survey also found that support for same-sex unions increases with education. If Barack Obama is on the presidential ballot in November, younger, well-educated voters are expected to turn out for him in unprecedented numbers, which could be decisive in the marriage amendment vote.

The one place The Times' survey found overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage is among evangelical Protestants, 83% of whom said they support a constitutional ban. That makes Ahmanson's and Atsinger's backing understandable, as well as the fact that the list of supporters on the amendment's website looks like a who's who of California's evangelical religious right. But notice that the Catholic bishops, Orthodox rabbis and Islamic imams -- who also hold traditional religious views -- are nowhere in sight.

The supporters listed also include all but one of California's Republican state senators and more than half of GOP Assembly members. That's where those unexpected consequences come in. In 1994, California Republicans thought they had a winning issue with Proposition 187, which would have denied all social services -- including healthcare and education -- to illegal immigrants. Gov. Pete Wilson was one of its leading advocates.

Proposition 187 easily passed, but it ultimately was overturned by a federal court. Since then, only one Republican candidate has won a statewide election for president, governor or U.S. senator in California. That lone GOP exception is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which may be why he categorically opposes the Marriage Protection Amendment.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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