Same-sex marriage just made a major comeback as a campaign issue.
Today’s ruling by the California Supreme Court that a reasonable reading of the state constitution prevents the denial of marriage protections to same-sex couples means that both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain — as well as congressional candidates of each party — will be debating the most contentious of social issues this fall.
The California decision is, of course, a legal one. As the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force explains, “Today’s decision overturns a ruling by the California Court of Appeals, which had reversed a trial court’s decision that the California Constitution forbids the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. California first established statewide domestic partnerships in 1999 and greatly expanded them in 2005 to include broad family recognition. In 2005 and 2007, the California Legislature passed measures that would have ended the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the legislation both times, saying the California Supreme Court should resolve the constitutional questions presented by California’s discriminatory marriage laws. With today’s decision, California joins Massachusetts in extending full marriage rights to same-sex couples.”
But, as it arrives in presidential election year, the decision of the highest court in the nation’s largest state is also a political one.
In California, the political test could take the form of an initiative vote this fall. Conservative churches and grassroots organizations have filed petitions to force a referendum on whether to enact a California Marriage Protection Act that would amend the state constitution to require discrimination against gays and lesbians.
But the debate won’t stop in California. Especially if the initiative vote is scheduled, there is no way that the candidates for president won’t be drawn into the fight.
That’s got some Democratic strategists scared. They think the only way to deal with social issues is to avoid them.
Those strategists are wrong. And if Obama and other candidates listen to their bad advice, damage will be done to the party’s prospects.
The fact is that the Democratic party has in recent years moved tentatively toward being a pro-gay rights party — just as it moved tentatively in the 1950s toward being a pro-civil rights party. The process has been slow, and it remains incomplete. But most Americans see Democrats as supporting gay rights, just as they see Republicans as opposing equality.