Gay-marriage countdown

Those who follow California politics are used to seeing up to a dozen anti-gay marriage initiatives pass through the secretary of state’s office each year. Yet none of them has made it onto the ballot since the Knight Initiative passed in 2000.

This time could be different. Gay marriage opponents could be facing a trio of ticking clocks: a state Supreme Court case that could invalidate California’s ban on gay marriage, voting trends and the lame duck Governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s performing of hundreds of gay marriages in 2004 has been widely seen as a failure, and may have hurt Democrats in that year’s election, according to some pundits. But when anti-gay marriage activists launched a half dozen court challenges, it stated a process that landed the matter in the California Supreme Court.

After a pair of lower courts split on the consolidated cases, the high court agreed last December to hear the matter. They’re scheduled to decide sometime next spring. The case is being closely watched by both sides–and is cited by gay marriage opponents as a reason to go to the ballot next year. The case is mentioned numerous times on the ProtectMarriage website.

If ProtectMarriage was able to pass a constitutional amendment, that would overrule the court and put it out of reach of state legislators. Both of the versions they’ve cleared for signature gathering would take the same text from the Knight Initiative–“Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”–and move it over to the Constitution. Pro-gay marriage advocates would need another initiative to overturn it.

Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has been watching that case closely and said that he is encouraged by the “detailed questions” the justices have been asking. He’s less encouraged by public statements Schwarzenegger has made that he would veto a gay marriage bill for the second time. He vetoed AB 849, Leno’s bill to legalize gay marriage, in 2005.

Leno’s new bill, AB 43, passed the Assembly last month, with less debate than two years ago. In 2012, Schwarzenegger will most-likely be replaced by a Democrat, and given that gay marriage has become a “mainstream idea” in the state Democratic party, he said, that governor will likely get and sign such a bill within a few months of taking office.

“Their window of opportunity is closing,” Leno said.

Meanwhile, the makeup of California voters is changing. Knight passed by a whopping 61 percent to 39 margin. But a poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California found likely voters deadlocked, with 46 approving of gay marriage and 48 percent opposed. National polls by the Pew Research Center have shown the opposition to gay marriage is strongest among voters over 65 and weakest among those 18 to 29.

But within all this doom and gloom for gay marriage foes could lie one key opening–an orphaned legislative primary. With the red-hot presidential primary now moved to February, gay-marriage opponents could try to rally their base for a low turnout June election.

Equality California director Geoff Kors said that unless they need to defeat a constitutional ban on gay marriage, his side is very unlikely to take the issue to the voters themselves.

“We don’t believe minority rights should be on the ballot,” Kors said. “The majority should not be deciding who I should marry.”

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