California and Beyond: The Battle over Gay Marriage

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David McNew / Getty

A pastor volunteers at a phone bank in conservative-leaning Orange County on Oct. 16 to urge Californians to vote no on Prop. 8, which would outlaw same-sex marriages in the state

Two weeks to go, and already the fight over the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in California is the costliest campaign about a social issue in U.S. history. Spending by both sides has topped $50 million, and the figure is growing. Most of those dollars have poured in since May, when the California Supreme Court turned what had been a slow-moving ballot initiative into a white-hot controversy by issuing the most sweeping declaration of fundamental gay rights to be found in U.S. law. Not only must gays be allowed to marry, the Republican-dominated court said, but it also flatly outlawed nearly any kind of discrimination against them.

The ruling struck down a 2000 statewide vote that had made gay marriage illegal (but not unconstitutional), and touched off a backlash among California conservatives. They put more than a million signatures together to force a Nov. 4 vote that, if successful, would undo the high court's ruling on gay marriage and stop what has been a stampede by gay and lesbian couples to Golden State courthouses.

California's fight over the initiative to ban gay marriage (popularly called Prop. 8) has attracted its share of million-dollar donors. The big contributors in the fight to approve Prop. 8 include the Knights of Columbus ($1 million); the National Organization for Marriage ($500,000); Dr. John Templeton, the son of the philanthropist Sir John Templeton ($450,000); and Focus on the Family ($500,000). Fighting against approval of Prop. 8 are celebrities like Steven Spielberg and his wife Kate Capshaw ($50,000 each), as well as former GOP U.S. Senate candidate Michael Huffington ($100,000); Robert Haas, chairman emeritus of Levi Straus ($200,000); and the California Teachers Union Issues PAC ($2 million). The media battle has been intense. Talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres (who had vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden on her show to oppose Prop. 8) has thrown $100,000 to buy TV time to fight the ban. Meanwhile, proponents of Prop. 8 — conservative groups and churches among them — have put up their own ads.

While California may be host to the most spectacular battle over marriage equality, it's anything but a new phenomenon. In the 10 years since reaction to gay-friendly court rulings sent Hawaiians to the polls to change the state constitution to forbid gay marriage, 29 other states have had similar votes. In what must be one of the most successful electoral runs in history, marriage traditionalists have won a remarkable 29 times out of 30 — and often by margins that political strategists regard as near mythical: 78% in Louisiana; 76% in Oklahoma; and four years ago, fully 86% in Mississippi. Two years ago, however, the winning streak stopped in John McCain's home state of Arizona, perhaps because conservatives had reached for too much, attempting to forbid both gay marriage and civil unions.

Californians who embraced the powerful language of the supreme court decision are hoping that the Arizona win signals a cresting of the electoral push back against gay-friendly court rulings. But it's still too early to tell. A string of opinion polls shows that Californians are ready to embrace gay marriage. Of seven bipartisan, statewide polls cited by the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California law school since May, only one gives the advantage to supporters of Prop. 8. But that poll, by SurveyUSA, also happens to be the most recent; released on Oct. 6, it shows the anti-gay-marriage campaign ahead 47% to 42%.

(Click here for a video about gay marriage.)

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