San Francisco changed America. When then-Mayor Gavin Newsom opened City Hall to same-sex marriages during the 2004 Winter of Love, he had determined to “put a human face on discrimination.” The long line of couples eager to tie the knot appealed to the public’s romantic side. When two people are in love and want to commit to each other for the rest of their lives, activists asked, how can the government say no?
That sentiment permeates Friday’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in an opinion supported by all four justices appointed by a Democrat. “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”
San Francisco spent the weekend celebrating this victory for gay and lesbian couples. For good reason: This gay-friendly city moved public opinion to the point that a majority of Americans supports same-sex marriage. The days and nights of cowering in a closet are over.
Consider how quickly and overwhelmingly public opinion shifted. In 2000, 61 percent of California voters approved a ballot measure that limited marriage to one man and one woman. After Newsom turned City Hall into a chapel of love in 2004, 14 states banned same-sex marriage and Sen. Dianne Feinstein concluded the San Francisco weddings were “too much, too fast, too soon.” Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barbara Boxer defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
At the time, I warned, “If Newsom can ignore a law he doesn’t like, why shouldn’t everyone else in the Special City do likewise?” Likewise state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, warned that if the courts upheld Newsom’s nuptials, then “local elected officials throughout the state would have license to ignore any state laws they disagree with, whether for personal, philosophical or political reasons.”
In May 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban by a 4-3 vote. From City Hall’s steps, Newsom famously crowed, “This door’s wide open now. It’s going to happen, whether you like it or not.”
Months later, 52 percent of California voters approved a constitutional measure to ban same-sex marriage. The state Supreme Court upheld the will of the voters, but federal courts overturned Proposition 8. (Friday’s Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling settled cases that originated in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.)
I always thought advocates should put a measure to legalize same-sex marriage on the ballot — add in protections for religious objections and a ban on polygamy and they would have had my vote with a smile. Often, however, culture doesn’t change in neat steps as you think it should. So I celebrate that gay and lesbian friends, as well as their children, feel more secure in the eyes of the law. Yes, they are loved.
The romantic in me rejoices. The lover of states’ — and voters’ — rights mourns. I cannot celebrate five judges imposing their view of marriage by fiat. I cannot ignore that Kennedy waited to do so until same-sex marriage was popular. Public opinion can turn on a dime. Not long ago, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed same-sex marriage when that view was popular. Now that same position makes someone a “hater.” I wonder: What punishment will the five potentates impose on the newly politically unpopular?
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