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Gay marriage opponents caught in a vortex of public opinion

Backers of Prop. 8 felt triumphant five years ago, but with Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling and a big shift in societal attitudes, they now feel increasingly marginalized.

June 26, 2013|By Jessica Garrison, Abby Sewell and Angel Jennings
  • Jesse Quintanilla, left, and Briana J. Castaneda, 23, center, join a crowd prompting cars to honk in celebration as they pass the intersection of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights boulevards in West Hollywood.
Jesse Quintanilla, left, and Briana J. Castaneda, 23, center, join a crowd… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Pastor Jim Franklin was one of the leading voices supporting California's 2008 gay marriage ban. He spoke passionately about the importance of traditional marriage from the pulpit of Cornerstone Church in Fresno and led rallies against gay unions.

Five years later, the epic battle appears to have ended when the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to decide the merits of the case on the grounds that the sponsors of Proposition 8 did not have the legal right to bring the appeal.

Franklin and other Proposition 8 supporters were left to ruminate over how a movement that triumphed at the ballot box twice now feels so marginalized.

After the Supreme Court ruled, Franklin fielded questions from reporters, calling it a "sad day." Franklin said the political dynamics surrounding gay marriage have changed significantly since 2008. Moreover, people who share his opposition to gay marriage feel increasingly stigmatized by those who brand them as intolerant.

"If you are for traditional marriage you must be a bigot, a hater.... No one wants to be called that, or labeled that," he said. He stressed that he and other opponents do not have any "animosity toward those in the gay community … but that doesn't change my understanding of society and traditional values."

Proposition 8 swept to victory on a message of traditional values, backed by an unlikely coalition of white suburban evangelical Christians, black voters, Catholics and Mormons. Its passage shocked some in a state known for liberal politics — especially because the measure was on the same ballot that elected the first black president, Barack Obama.

But the victory was short-lived.

In most political campaigns, election day signals the end. But passage of Proposition 8 instead sparked the beginning of one of the greatest legal fights in California history, and along with it a deliberate and sweeping campaign by gay-rights activists to win over the hearts and minds of Californians. They shifted their message, focusing more on individual stories of couples wanting to get married and less on the abstract issues of civil rights. Some also took to the streets to protest some of the most prominent backers of Proposition 8.

They were helped when Gov. Jerry Brown, then the state attorney general, refused to defend Proposition 8 against legal challenges in court. That helped clear the way for Wednesday's ruling, in which justices declined to consider the merits of the case on the grounds that Protect Marriage.com, which sponsored the ballot measure, did not have standing to bring it.

All the while, public opinion in California — and elsewhere — was changing rapidly.

"It's not just that there is an acceptance of same-sex marriage, it's that there is a [lack of] acceptance of people who are not supportive," political consultant Mike Madrid said. "That's just fascinating, as a student of politics."

A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that nearly 6 in 10 California voters believe same-sex marriage should be legal, with support rising among older voters and in all regions of the state.

The poll found that 58% of the state's registered voters believe same-sex marriage should be legal, compared with 36% against, a margin of 22 percentage points. When the same pollsters asked that question three years ago, 52% favored gay marriage and 40% opposed it, a 12-point spread.

"Public attitude is now inexorably in support of gay marriage," said Tom Thorkelson, director of interfaith relations for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Orange County. "Young people are saying, 'This is our era. We're moving in the direction where we feel comfortable.'"

Wendy Montgomery, 37, of Bakersfield, and her husband supported Proposition 8 in 2008 but changed their position "180 degrees" after they learned their 13-year-old son was gay a year and a half ago. Montgomery, a practicing Mormon, said she voted for the measure and spent a couple of days canvassing and working on a phone bank for it.

"We're Mormon. The church asked us to participate in Prop. 8, and we did, pretty much unthinking," she said.

When her son came out, he told his parents he had at first planned never to tell them he was gay, because he thought they hated gay people because they had supported Proposition 8.

"I know that's not the message that the Mormon Church was intending to convey," Montgomery said. "But it was the message that was received."

The Supreme Court rulings Wednesday, she said, "just made me smile because I feel like now my son will be treated like everyone else."

Elsewhere in the state, religious leaders, even those who remain staunchly opposed to gay marriage, said they have seen similar shifts.

"The climate has changed," said Bishop George McKinney, pastor of St. Stephens Cathedral Church of God in Christ in San Diego. He intends to continue to preach against gay marriage but said that he has noticed other churches becoming much less vocal.

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