Are We Finally Off the Hook for Prop 8?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Celebrate that marriage equality is a 50-state reality. (OK, 49 – it wouldn’t be a major advance in American civil rights if Mississippi weren’t engaged in defiance).

Run a victory lap if you like (take the baton from Gavin Newsom, since he must be getting tired with all his victory laps).

Get hitched while you’re at it. (Think of the economic spike this year from all those rich celebrities who can finally get married after saying for years they couldn’t until every one could).

But if you’re an average Californian who wasn’t deeply involved in the legal and political fights on the subject, you probably shouldn’t pat yourself on the back over the legalization of same-sex marriage. We didn’t have anything to do with it.

To the contrary, we approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage less than seven years ago – in November 2008. It was a big whiff for a state that likes to think it knows better than anyplace else.

And we never gave ourselves a chance to correct our verdict – in any of the half-dozen election cycles since. Yes, we had strong leadership on marriage equality, from people inside and outside government, but a California majority never got this issue right.

Instead, we had to lean on the feds to reverse our mistake in Prop 8 – and do the work of legalization. It was a federal court in San Francisco that held a crucial trial in a challenge to Prop 8 – and ultimately created public education and momentum for marriage equality by throwing out Prop 8. And then it was the U.S. Supreme Court that backed up that federal court and invalidated Prop 8 – and then again last week established marriage equality throughout the land.

The next time you hear a Californian say that social change happens here first, you might bring up marriage equality. Which happened in Hawaii and Massachusetts first – and was established in California not by its people but by the federal courts.

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