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Matt Coles,
Former Deputy Legal Director and Director of Center for Equality
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May 15, 2008

We won the marriage case in California. No need for hyperbole here; this is big; big in terms of what it does, big in terms of what it means, and big in terms of the opportunity for progress it gives us (I’ll suggest some of the ways to take advantage of that opportunity below).

Simply having the California Supreme Court say that constitutional principles demand that marriage be open to same-sex couples is an enormous win. This Court has a remarkable history of leadership on civil rights and civil liberties. It made landmark decisions on race and sex discrimination, on freedom of speech and privacy, and on treatment of the disabled and poor people long before the U.S. Supreme Court. No court in America has more authority to say that marriage for same-sex couples is an issue of basic freedom than this one.

And as the New York Times recently pointed out, the California Supreme Court is the most influential state high court in America. If you’d like to read it, here’s the decision.

Marriage in California will transform the discussion of marriage nationwide. California has one of the largest economies in the world. Given the state’s economic clout, the fact that California is marrying same-sex couples will put considerable pressure on the rest of the country to recognize those marriages.

Even more important, the rest of the country recognizes that California is America’s cultural trendsetter, that cultural change in California is usually a preview of what is to come in the rest of the United States. Most Americans already believe that marriage for same-sex couples is bound to happen sooner or later. I think marriage in California will help persuade many of them that this is an issue of basic fairness, and that the time for it is now.

This was a prize of inestimable value.

Now, of course, we have to hold on to it. It appears fairly certain that anti-gay forces have gotten enough signatures to put on the November ballot an initiative that would amend the state Constitution and overrule the decision.

That initiative is scary. We lost a different vote on marriage only eight years ago. And our opponents, recognizing that marriage in California is a great prize, will fight with all their might. They’ll put everything they have into this. Which means that to win, we’ll have to raise a great deal of money and run a very smart campaign.

While we can’t discount how difficult and nerve-wracking it will be to fight the initiative, we can win. If ever a state was well prepared for a vote on marriage, it is California. LGBT rights work has been going on there since the 50s, and we’ve been establishing rights for same-sex couples since the 80s.

And we can’t forget how much greater the prize will be if we win. If we win the initiative, marriage in California will have a popular stamp of approval. No more will our opponents be able to call marriage the child of “activist judges” or out-of-control local officials. The court has given us the chance to win marriage for ourselves, and push the fight for full equality ahead by years. We’ve got to rise to meet that challenge.

We all need to support the initiative campaign. But that’s not all we should do. We need to take advantage of the cultural change this decision will help create. If you work for a company that doesn’t recognize domestic partners, you should change that. If you live in a city without a domestic partnership registry, you should change that. If you live in a state where a marriage or civil union law is possible, you should join the effort. And if you live in a place where recognition of same-sex relationships seems too ambitious, get a local nondiscrimination law, or a nondiscrimination policy from your employer. Its easy. Just click.

And for a moment, let’s just revel in one of the greatest wins in our history.

How sweet it is.

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