Marriage Rights Strengthened

— Lyn Stoesen, News Staff


In May, the California Supreme Court, in a precedent-setting case, ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in the state of California.

The decision, coming from the nation's largest state, was expected to have an enormous impact on the ongoing fight for equal marriage rights. NASW and its California Chapter had joined a brief in the case, In re Marriage Cases, which supported the right of same-sex couples to marry.

"This is a historic decision," said NASW California Chapter Executive Director Janlee Wong. "It reflects how the people of California feel — a recent poll shows the majority of citizens support this decision.

"[The California Chapter] has led the fight among social workers and teamed with our allies across the state to support this very important civil rights decision," Wong said. "This will benefit all Californians in the future. We're very proud of and happy with the decision."

The 5-4 ruling struck down state laws against same-sex marriage and ruled that domestic partnerships, which can provide many rights and benefits of matrimony, are not legally sufficient to assure equality.

Additionally, the court placed sexual orientation in the same category as race and gender, requiring strict legal scrutiny of government action that grants or denies legal rights on the basis of those characteristics. This marks a significant departure from how state courts have previously addressed the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

The ruling could be short-lived; a conservative coalition has submitted a petition to have a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage on the November ballot.

"We know there is still going to be a fight in the fall," Wong said. "Opponents are mounting another attempt, but NASW will be active in joining with allies and colleagues to defeat that initiative."

The case stems from a ruling in 2004 in which the state Supreme Court ordered the city and county of San Francisco to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A lawsuit was filed against the state; the case moved through the court system and went before the state Supreme Court.

In the ruling, Chief Justice Ronald George wrote that "in contrast to earlier times, our state now recognizes that an individual's capacity to establish a loving and long-committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation.

"Reserving the historic designation of 'marriage' exclusively for opposite-sex couples poses at least a serious risk of denying the family relationship of same-sex couples . . . equal dignity and respect," he wrote.

George also noted in the decision that "no religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs."

Also in May, New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D) issued a directive for state agencies to revise policies to honor same-sex marriages conducted outside New York. Massachusetts and California are the only states that have legalized same-sex marriage.

"The governor of New York State has taken a bold step in insuring the rights of all New York citizens when he ordered the directive recognizing gay marriage from other jurisdictions," said NASW New York State Chapter Executive Director Reinaldo Cardona. "We congratulate Gov. David Patterson for taking such initiative."

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