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Wednesday, September 7, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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California legislators approve same-sex marriage

The Washington Post

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Assembly voted yesterday to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, making the state's Legislature the first in the nation to specifically approve same-sex marriages and handing a political hot potato to an already beleaguered Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After a vehement floor debate in which legislators quoted the Pledge of Allegiance and accused each other of abusing moral principles, the Assembly voted 41-35 to pass the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which recasts the definition of marriage as between "two persons," not between a man and a woman. The state Senate passed the bill last week.

"There are moments in the history of any movement when the corner is turned," said Geoff Kors, the executive director of Equality California, a gay-rights group. "This is it. This is the tipping point."

Advocates of the bill argued it fit into California's sense of itself as a trendsetter for the country.

In 1948, the California Supreme Court became the first state court to strike down a law prohibiting interracial marriage. And California in 1976 was among the first states to repeal sodomy statutes.

The bill's supporters compared the legislation to earlier civil-rights campaigns, including efforts to eradicate slavery and give women the right to vote.

"Do what we know is in our hearts," said the bill's sponsor, San Francisco Democrat Mark Leno. "Make sure all California families will have the same protection under the law."

But opponents, including Republican conservatives, have argued that the law must be stopped in the nation's most populous state because it constitutes an assault on the sanctity of the family.

"Marriage should be between a man and a woman, end of story. Next issue," insisted Republican Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy. "It's not about civil rights or personal rights, it's about acceptance. They want to be accepted as normal. They are not normal."

Opponents repeatedly cited the public's vote five years ago to approve Proposition 22, an initiative put on the ballot by gay-marriage opponents to keep California from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states or countries.

"History will record that you betrayed your constituents and their moral and ethical values," said Republican Assemblyman Jay La Suer.

Yesterday's vote amounted to more difficult news for Schwarzenegger, the Republican actor-turned-politician who roared into Sacramento in a recall election in 2003 promising fundamental change.

Schwarzenegger, who has taken on teachers, nurses and other state workers, has seen his popularity lag in recent months. A Field Poll of registered voters this month put the governor's approval rating at 36 percent, an all-time low.

If he vetoes the bill, Schwarzenegger will retain the support of his GOP base, which he will need in a special election he has called for November. But he could alienate many Democrats who voted for him and whose backing he still covets.

In the special election, Schwarzenegger is asking voters to grant him more budget-cutting power, to block gerrymandering by placing legislative redistricting in the hands of retired judges and to make public schoolteachers work five years instead of two before they win tenure.

"This puts Schwarzenegger on the hot seat," said Bruce Cain, professor of political science at University of California, Berkeley, who predicted the governor would veto the bill. "I think it's a slam-dunk that he's going to have to veto the bill and hope that the anger in the gay community doesn't spill over into other groups."

Other political strategists said yesterday's vote would force Schwarzenegger to parse his own personal mix of fiscal conservatism and liberal social views.

As a former Hollywood star, he hails from a milieu where gay men and women occupy key positions, and he has spoken glowingly about his friendships with people of all sexual orientations.

"I think the governor's going to be in a difficult position, because during the campaign his positions were ambiguous on the issue," said Arnold Steinberg, a political strategist generally for Republicans.

Schwarzenegger supports domestic partnerships but opposes same-sex marriage, a spokesman said.

The Legislature's move goes further than other states, such as Vermont and Connecticut, which have passed legislation allowing more strictly defined "civil unions."

And it differs from Massachusetts, the only state to grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples, because the Massachusetts' regulations were passed by order of the state's courts, which ruled a ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

California is already one of the most gay-friendly states in the nation. Its domestic-partnership legislation grants same-sex couples most of the benefits of married couples except a few, such as the right to jointly file income-tax returns, the right to bring a foreign partner into the United States and the right to pass on Social Security benefits to a spouse.

More than 30,000 same-sex couples are registered in California as domestic partners.

Information about Proposition 22 and some lawmakers' comments were provided by The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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