Features

California schemin'

Marriage | In the fight to legalize same-sex unions, a swing vote emerges: Hispanic evangelicals

Issue: "Survivors," Sept. 29, 2007

SAN DIEGO- Two weeks ago, the San Diego City Council deadlocked 4-4 on a resolution to sign onto a Supreme Court brief aimed at overturning the state's ban on gay marriage. On Sept. 18, the chamber voted again. This time, gay marriage won, 5-3. And after the vote San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who once pledged to veto the resolution, reversed his position Sept. 19 in an emotional statement announcing that his daughter is a lesbian.

A vote in favor of gay marriage in California's most conservative city may signal the tick-tick-tocking of time left for traditional marriage in California.

Since Golden State voters in 2000 passed Proposition 22, an initiative that added the traditional definition of marriage to state law, gay litigators and liberal legislators have twice tried to upend the will of the people. A veto by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stymied Democratic lawmakers who in 2005 passed a bill that legalized same-sex marriage. Now a similar bill, AB 43, is sitting on the governor's desk.

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Schwarzenegger on Sept. 18 declared that he would reject this measure, too: "It would be wrong for the people to vote for something and for me to then overturn it," the governor said. "So they can send this bill down as many times as they want, I won't do it."

But Matt Daniels, president of Alliance for Marriage (AFM), said that unless conservatives wake up to the threat, "it's only a matter of time" before gay activists and allied public officials get their way.

"For many reasons defeat here will have national consequences," said Daniels, who spoke with WORLD via phone from San Francisco. "If we lose in California, the media will tell us that the nation's most populous state is leading the way, that the debate over marriage has been settled by the people."

In recent years, only Schwarzenegger's RINO (Republican in name only) conservatism has held the line here, and in an era of Democratic ascendancy, the GOP could lose the governorship in 2008. Following that, census-spurred redistricting in 2010 will likely solidify Democratic legislative strongholds. Meanwhile, the statehouse's Democrat-populated "LGBT Caucus," the only such group officially recognized in the nation, will continue producing a steady stream of bills aimed at eroding traditional gender roles.

There is, however, a wildcard-a constituency that straddles the gap between the preservation of marriage, a goal mainly associated with Republicans, and the push for gay marriage, led mainly by Democrats: Hispanic evangelicals.

In June, AFM's Daniels and Samuel Rodriguez Jr., pastor and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), announced the launch of the California Latino Steering Committee to Protect Marriage. According to its literature, NHCLC represents 15 million Hispanics in 18,000 congregations.

For several reasons, Daniels said, "the most critical community in California's debate over marriage is the Latino community." First, Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic group in California and also in the nation. Second, they voted for Prop 22 by a higher margin (65 percent) than any other group, including African-Americans, who have usually led marriage-protection vote tallies in other states. Third, they are social traditionalists who also command the attention of Democratic pollsters. Finally, Hispanic evangelicals don't step into the marriage debate lugging the same political baggage as white "establishment" evangelicals.

"The media have, erroneously I believe, painted those groups as anti-homosexual," Rodriguez said. "But the Hispanic community is not known to be anti-homosexual. So when our community says, look, it's not about having some kind of phobia about another group-it's about family, it's about the survival of our community-we come with credibility."

That has earned NHCLC a hearing not only with Hispanics in pews and pulpits, but also with Hispanic civic leaders who usually support the Democratic Party's platform and candidates. On traditional marriage, "we're gaining wide support," Rodriguez said. "It's an issue critical to the survival of our community. The No. 1 antidote to gang involvement, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and high school dropouts is the model where both mom and dad are in the home. We really are not having a difficult time engaging Hispanic Californians on this issue."

But Rodriguez and other Hispanic leaders have had trouble engaging some mostly white evangelical groups on another issue important to Hispanics-immigration-and the rift has threatened evangelical solidarity on marriage. In April 2006, Rodriguez and eight other Latino pastors sent a letter asking President Bush and Congress to enact immigration reform that would "protect our borders, put an end to all illegal immigration, . . . [and] facilitate avenues by which the millions of families already in America that lack the legal status can earn such status in a manner that reflects the Judeo Christian value system this nation was founded upon."

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