Same-Sex Marriage Headed for State Ballots and Supreme Court
by David Gibson
The bill Gov. Martin O’Malley signed March 1 making same-sex marriage legal in Maryland takes effect next January. But will this issue be brought up for a vote by the people before the law takes effect?
That may well happen, enabling Maryland citizens to express their views on the very definition of the term “marriage.” Is it the union of one man and one woman or, as the new law has it, is marriage simply the union of two individuals not otherwise prohibited from marrying?
At this moment, Maryland is set to join the District of Columbia and the states of Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington in allowing same-sex couples to marry.
However, a drive by the Maryland Marriage Alliance to collect the citizen signatures required to put the issue on next November’s Maryland ballot already is getting under way, Catholic News Service reported March 7.
Earlier, the Maryland Catholic Conference said, “When this issue reaches the November ballot, we are confident that the citizens of Maryland will join voters in 31 other states in upholding marriage between one man and one woman.”
Washington and New Jersey Act on Same-Sex Marriage
Just 17 days before Maryland’s law was signed, Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington signed a measure legalizing same-sex marriage in her state. The new law was to take effect 90 days after its signing.
However, in Washington’s case too, supporters of the traditional definition of “marriage” hope to overturn it through a ballot initiative in November.
In other state-level action during February, New Jersey’s Legislature approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. But Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it Feb. 17, as he promised.
Christie indicated he might name an ombudsman to ensure that the state’s current civil-unions law is respected. He said, “Same-sex couples in a civil union deserve the very same rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples.”
But the governor’s ombudsman proposal was criticized by same-sex marriage proponents, who said civil unions do not substitute for marriage.
Christie also said as the same-sex marriage bill made its way through New Jersey’s Legislature that this issue should be put to a vote with November’s ballot.
In fact, it seems the definition of “marriage” will be a ballot measure for voters in a number of states next fall. It has been reported, for example, that proponents of same-sex marriage in Maine now have collected a sufficient number of citizen signatures to place a same-sex initiative on the state’s November ballot. In November 2009 Maine voters repealed a state law allowing same-sex marriage.
Archbishop Sartain Explains Church Teaching
In a sense, many voters this fall will be asked whether marriage between a man and a woman is “the basic unit of society, a personal relationship with public significance,” as Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle told a Washington state Senate committee in January.
In concert with Catholic bishops across the nation, Archbishop Sartain explained that the church teaches “that all persons are loved by God and have God-given dignity.” Noting that the same-sex marriage legislation the committee was considering had “elicited strong emotions on both sides,” he said:
“I have tried my best to treat all with respect, compassion and sensitivity, as my church teaches and expects me and all Catholics to do.”
His state’s Catholic bishops opposed the bill “based on the grave challenge” they are convinced it poses “to the common good,” Archbishop Sartain added. He said:
“We recognize that not everyone holds our faith and beliefs, but the universal principles that form the basis for our position are readily discernible by all people. They transcend any particular society, government or religious community; in fact, they are built into human life itself.”
Court Overturns California ban on Same-Sex Marriage
The same-sex marriage issue appears not only headed for voting booths next November, but for the U.S. Supreme Court. Action by an appeals court in California – also in February – seemed only to confirm that at some point in the not-distant future the high court will address this matter.
On Feb. 7, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 2-1 ruling that California’s ban on same-sex marriages violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing due process and equal protection under the law.
The panel’s decision was on hold at least until the deadline passed to file an appeal, suggesting same-sex marriages would not be conducted in the state in the near future.
The ruling by the panel came against the background of the 2008 approval by California voters of Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union only of a man and a woman. Before that vote, same-sex marriage was legal in the state, but new same-sex marriages stopped afterward.
The panel said, however, that the state had given the right to marry to same-sex couples and could not revoke it, as it did. However, the panel said it did not decide with this ruling “whether under the Constitution same-sex couples may ever be denied the right to marry.”
The president of the California Catholic Conference, Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Wilkerson of Los Angeles, commented on the panel’s ruling. He said the state’s Catholic bishops were disappointed. At the same time, he said that “given the issues involved and the nature of the legal process, it’s always been clear that this case would very likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Bishop Wilkerson said the bishops are confident that in the end the court will “uphold the will of the voters as expressed in Proposition 8.”
On Feb. 12, the Protect Marriage coalition, which secured Proposition 8’s place on the 2008 California ballot, petitioned the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the three-judge panel’s decision.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.