August 18, 2004
On Aug. 12, California's Supreme Court did an awkward two-step around the question of whether gay couples have the same legal right to marry as other California residents.
First, the seven justices voted unanimously to slap the wrist of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, issuing a decision stating that he went too far when he ordered city officials to legitimize the marriages of nearly 4,000 same-sex couples performed in early 2004.
"To the extent the mayor purported to 'direct' or 'instruct' the county clerk and the county recorder to take specific actions with regard to the issuance of marriage licenses or the registering of marriage certificates, we conclude he exceeded the scope of his authority," wrote Chief Justice Ronald George. If other officials like Newsom took it upon themselves to disregard laws they believe are unconstitutional, "any semblance of uniform rule of law quickly would disappear," George wrote.
The court didn't stop there, however.
Next, a majority of the justices stomped squarely on the hearts and licenses of the 3,995 same-sex couples married in San Francisco between Feb. 12 and March 11, and declared their nuptials had no legal standing. In the 5-2 majority opinion, George wrote that "a same-sex marriage performed in violation of state law is void and of no legal effect."
While the first decision was particularly narrow -- focusing almost exclusively on the mayor's actions -- the second one took a broader view, sidestepped equal protection issues and, with a few sharp words, nullified the public unions of thousands or Californians.
As Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote in her minority opinion, "It is premature and unwise to assert, as the majority essentially does, that the thousands of same-sex weddings performed in San Francisco were empty and meaningless ceremonies in the eyes of the law."
The court's decisions devastated many gay couples.
Longtime community activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first gay couple to be wed by Newsom, expressed their grave disappointment. "Del is 83 years old, and I am 79," Lyon told the San Francisco Chronicle after the court decision was announced. "After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time."
San Francisco's mayor also proudly vowed to continue his constitutional challenge. "There is nothing any judge, lawyer and politician can ever do to take away the moment those couples shared together" when they said "I do," Newsom told reporters. "This ruling is merely a temporary delay in our ongoing struggle for equality."
Let's hope that civic leaders and average citizens come to understand -- as Newsom has -- that there is no rational, secular reason why same-sex couples should be prohibited from marrying.
Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based writer and co-host of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org