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the Sacramento Bee

California's Gay Marriage Trailblazers Look East for Signs of Progress

Susan Ferriss

Demonstrators show their support for overturning California's ban on gay marriage, participating in a march from Berkeley to the Capitol late last month. California now sees other states taking the lead in extending marriage rights to gays. (Lezlie Sterling)

California's legislators were gay-rights trailblazers when a majority passed the first same-sex marriage bill in the United States in 2005.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, and voters passed a ban on gay marriage with Proposition 8. Now gay activists in the Golden State find themselves looking East for fresh inspiration.

In a dizzying series of events, Iowa's Supreme Court and Vermont's legislature legalized gay marriage just this month.

Now New Hampshire and New York - with the Empire State governor's blessing last week - are considering their own state laws approving marriage for same-sex couples.

Marc Solomon, marriage director for Equality California, said his group is hopeful that the Iowa decision will have an impact on public opinion in California, where the state's highest court must issue its second ruling on gay marriage rights by early June.

"Iowa is not thought of as, quote, a usual suspect. It's not Massachusetts. It's not the liberal Northeast," said Solomon, who fought for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

Frank Schubert, the Sacramento-based campaign director for Proposition 8, said gay activists' national strategy seems to focus on organizing heavily in states that don't have ballot-measure procedures like California's that could allow voters to foil gay marriage laws or court decisions.

"The other side certainly picked up a few victories in recent weeks," he said.

The battle over gay marriage in California has been waged for nearly a decade in all possible legal areas - in the Legislature, at the ballot box in 2000 and 2009, and the state's Supreme Court, also twice.

Californians are now waiting for justices to rule on whether voters had the right to change the state constitution last November with Proposition 8, which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.

California's high court made history last May when it issued a 4-3 decision that gays had a constitutional right to marry - but that ruling was handed down before voters changed the constitution.

Iowa's Supreme Court referred to the California court's decision when it declared on April 3 that gays had a basic right to marry.

The National Organization for Marriage - an anti-gay-marriage group - will support attempts to overturn the Iowa court decision with a ballot initiative, said Maggie Gallagher, the group's president.

"It's not over in Iowa," she said. "From where we sit, this really energizes us. We're finding that activists are flocking to us. We're going to fight it in New Hampshire and New York. We're going to fight it everywhere."

But Gallagher acknowledged that it would far more "arduous" to challenge the Iowa court ruling at the ballot box than it was in California.

Proposition 8's Schubert, who now does work for Gallagher's group, said it would take four years to get a measure banning gay marriage through Iowa's legislature.

To put a measure on the ballot, a majority of lawmakers must vote for it twice in two legislative sessions.

"It's not going to happen," Schubert said of attempts to overturn Iowa's court ruling.

On April 7, on the heels of the Iowa decision, Vermont's legislature made Vermont the fourth state to legalize gay marriage after lawmakers garnered enough votes to override a veto by the governor.

Vermont doesn't have an initiative process, Schubert noted.

Solomon said that Massachusetts has a ballot process, but that gay-marriage opponents were unable to meet the requirements to get a measure before voters that would have overturned a 2004 decision by that state's high court to allow same-sex couples to wed.

In Massachusetts, he said, a ballot measure first needs to pass through two legislative sessions with a quarter of lawmakers approving it.

The momentum is gone now, he said, because "most people in Massachusetts are fine with gay marriage, or don't care that much."

He recalled organizing meetings in Massachusetts between lawmakers and gay couples "who told their stories" and tried to generate a sense of "common humanity."

Gay-rights activists in California say they still can take credit as a leader in the movement despite the fact that their side is making more progress in some other states.

"We are slowly changing the country," said a jubilant Richard Aviles, 18, a self-described Chicano gay teen from Los Angeles.

Aviles and scores of other teens were in Sacramento on Monday for a Capitol rally and to press lawmakers to pass state bills declaring a Harvey Milk Day and to permit teens to seek mental health services without parental permission.

Opinion surveys show a majority of younger voters are supportive of same-sex marriage. It's a matter of time, gay activists say, before public opinion shifts enough that they can win a gay-marriage initiative at the ballot box.

Zac Toomay, 16, Uriel Mendoza, 17, and Graham Smith, 18, shared their personal stories with staff members of Republican legislators from their hometowns in San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties.

Harvey Milk is a figure they look up to, they said, and gay teenagers would benefit from a bill that would allow them to seek confidential counseling.

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