In 1948, the California Supreme Court led the way in striking down a ban on interracial marriage. Now, 60 years later, the court has issued another groundbreaking decision on marriage that, whatever its flaws, is likely to stand tall in history's judgment.
By a 4-3 vote, the court struck down a state ban on same-sex marriage, declaring that the relationship of same-sex couples must be granted the same "dignity and respect" as heterosexual marriage. It would have been better if the same result could have come from political consensus instead of a decision handed down by a sharply divided court. California already was far along in extending equal rights to gay couples. Before the court ruling, same-sex couples in the state had virtually the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. The only real difference was that their relationships were not recognized by the state as "marriage.''
The ruling, and a similar one in Massachusetts in 2003, suggest that maybe before another generation passes, our society will largely come to view the legal barriers to gay marriage the way we do those of interracial marriage — as a relic of a more intolerant time. Meanwhile, the California ruling is sure to reignite the political debate over gay marriage and energize efforts to change federal and state Constitutions to ban it.
Through a citizens' initiative, Florida's voters will be asked this November whether they want to amend the state's Constitution to add a ban on gay marriage and other forms of domestic partnerships. No doubt, the California ruling will embolden proponents of this measure. Already a number of states have responded to the gay community's call for legal equality for same-sex couples by slamming the door shut with constitutional amendments. And there continue to be calls for the adoption of a federal amendment banning gay marriage.
The shift in public attitudes on gay marriage is being driven by young people, including some who identify themselves as political and religious conservatives. As opposed to earlier generations when gay people were largely relegated to the closet, people under 35 have generally grown up knowing gay-led families, gay neighbors, gay school classmates and having been exposed to popular culture where homosexuality is seen as part of our diverse society.
Florida will come to accept gay marriage at its own pace. The worst thing we could do is lock today's attitudes and prejudices into the state Constitution by passing the ban on gay marriage in November.