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Why Yesterday's Prop. 8 Decision Matters

James Esseks,
Director, LGBTQ & HIV Project,
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August 5, 2010

By now you’ve surely heard about yesterday’s smashing victory in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger federal marriage case in San Francisco. It’s a historic ruling that strikes down Prop. 8 because it violates the federal Constitution. The decision makes some big contributions to the law, but it’s the court’s factual findings that are likely to be most important in terms of changing the dialogue in America about marriage.

What sets this case apart is that the court held a full trial, at which both sides got to present evidence, and the judge could then sort fact from fiction. The folks fighting marriage for same-sex couples are pushing a lot of fiction, so it’s great to have a judge bring a measure of reality back to the conversation.

Three of Judge Vaughn Walker’s factual findings stand out.

First, he rejected the assertion that kids need a married mom and dad, and that restricting marriage to different-sex couples ensures that more kids are raised in that kind of household. In his decision, Judge Walker wrote the evidence at trial showed that “same-sex parents and opposite-sex parents are of equal quality,” and “Proposition 8 does not make it more likely that opposite-sex couples will marry and raise offspring biologically related to both parents.” State courts addressing challenges to parenting restrictions have come to the same conclusions (based on the same evidence), but it’s great to have a federal court reinforce these findings.

Second, the judge held that there is no material difference between same-sex and different-sex relationships. Judge Walker wrote in the decision:

Same-sex couples are identical to opposite-sex couples in the characteristics relevant to the ability to form successful marital unions. Like opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples have happy, satisfying relationships and form deep emotional bonds and strong commitments to their partners. Standardized measures of relationship satisfaction, relationship adjustment and love do not differ depending on whether a couple is same-sex or opposite-sex.

Third, Judge Walker held that the Prop. 8 proponents could not identify any factually verifiable way in which allowing same-sex couples to marry would harm different-sex couples. Indeed, prior to trial, when the judge pressed the lead lawyer for the proponents about how straight people would be harmed, he responded: “Your honor, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know.” Stunning.

Those questions – whether gay people are bad for kids, whether our relationships are the same or different from those of straight people, and how exactly allowing us to marry would harm heterosexual marriages – are key touchstones of the marriage debate all across the country. To have them not only answered, but demolished on the facts after a full trial, is a turning point in the national discussion of this issue.

The ACLU, along with Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, filed a friend-of-the court brief in support of the plaintiffs.

The trial has made plain that the other side’s arguments, and its passion on the issue, are based not on any real harm stemming from allowing us to marry, but on misconceptions about us and our relationships, which lead to a profound discomfort with gay people in general. What power the judicial system has for sorting through conflicting claims, even those based on emotion. And what an opportunity for us to get the conflicted middle of the American populace to step back and think again about whether there’s any real reason to be concerned about allowing us the freedom to marry.

Yesterday’s decision is a time to celebrate, but our work is far from done. While this case makes its way to the Supreme Court, it’s critical that we continue to fight for same-sex marriage bills in other states. After all, the more victories we win, the harder it will be for extremists intent on blocking our progress to be successful. Join us taking a pledge to keep working until same-sex couples are allowed to marry all across the country.

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)