In March 2000, a California voter initiative defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The California Supreme Court is mulling a lawsuit challenging that definition, but a feisty new organization, the National Organization for Marriage, and allied state groups are opening a new front in the war — through a second voter initiative, they are trying to protect marriage in the California constitution. Last week, petitions were delivered to the California secretary of state to put the initiative on the November 2008 ballot.
This effort promises to begin what NOM president Maggie Gallagher characterizes as a battle of the Titans in the marriage debate, with millions of dollars spent trying to convince Golden State voters in one direction or the other.
Part of what makes the amendment’s qualifying for the ballot so dramatic is that it was so unexpected. When stalwart marriage defenders at Protect Marriage California began gathering signatures, the hurdles to success were daunting. The whole process had to be compressed into four months, and large amounts of money had to be raised in significantly less time, in order to make the signature-gathering possible — paid signature gatherers have become a necessity in California initiatives. Supporters were worried.
Opponents reacted with perfunctory expressions of concern. They invoked failed efforts to qualify marriage amendments for the ballot in recent years. Their nonchalant reaction, however, turned into expressions of real alarm as it became clear in March and April that the amendment petition was likely to succeed.
This, in turn, led to an increasingly desperate and hostile attempt to block the efforts of petition-gatherers. Brian Brown, the director of NOM who has moved back to California (where he was raised) to help the campaign, explains that a group called Equality for All reports more than 1,000 volunteers (some from out of state) for their “Decline to Sign” campaign, while there are only about 200 petition-gatherers working in the state.
The anti-amendment group solicits reports of petition-gatherers’ whereabouts, and then sends volunteers to where the gatherers are working. These volunteers are ostensibly persuading voters that the amendment is a bad idea. Brown notes, however, that they are beginning to document reports of petition-gatherers being physically blocked, yelled at, and intimidated. These complaints have become frequent. Brown admits that the day and night efforts to keep voters from getting an amendment on the ballot have made the process more difficult.
Interference with signature-gathering is illegal in California. As Gallagher points out, there is a sad irony in “civil-rights” organizations trying to prevent Californians from exercising one of their most basic rights.
The opposition, though fierce, has been unavailing. NOM leaders credit their success to the generosity of California donors. An initial grant from the Knights of Columbus helped get the process started, but California donors, many of whom are Catholics in the San Diego area (where Auxiliary Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone has been influential in support of marriage) have been the key. Brian says these donors put their money where their mouth is. Brown also credits pro-family leaders like Andy Pugno at Protect Marriage and Ron Prentice of the California Family Council.
Another reason the petition succeeded is that redefining marriage poses risks to religious liberty, and voters have increasingly realized this, Brown said. Massachusetts Catholic Charities has had to end its practice of placing children for adoption in that state, because it would not agree to place with same-sex couples in contravention of its religious mission. More recently, a legal scholar has suggested religious organizations be subject to a “nondiscrimination requirement” in order to retain their tax-exempt status.
Not content to wait years to respond to the state Supreme Court, Californians are asserting their constitutional prerogative to settle this fundamental question for themselves. This will be an epic battle to defend not just marriage, but voters’ self-determination.
– William Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation.