The power of three

Law | How a trio of pastors sparked the movement to give California voters the last word on same-sex marriage in their state

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

SAN DIEGO- From the dusty Mexican border to the redwoods of the north, from broiling eastern deserts to the cool Pacific coast, on June 25, the prayers of more than a thousand pastors covered California like a quilt. The locus: Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego County. There, nearly 300 people, most of them pastors, gathered to pray, repent, and strategize for November, when Californians will vote on a constitutional amendment affirming the historical definition of marriage.

While Skyline organized the event, satellite technology provided live video feeds to 1,300 more people-again, mostly pastors-gathered at 101 other churches up and down the state. Miles MacPherson, senior pastor of The Rock, a San Diego congregation of 12,000, opened the meeting with a call to repentance for Christian leaders.

"We've been given a vineyard," he said, alluding to a parable in the book of Matthew, "and we're in this position because we didn't take care of it."

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MacPherson was referring not only to California pastors' past reluctance to get involved in protecting marriage, but also to apathy on marriage itself: "If we can't honor marriage in the church, if pastors can't even stay married, we've got a bigger problem."

If push-pins on a map of California showed churches represented at the meeting, the pins would cover 90 percent of the state. But it was three San Diego pastors who lit a church-driven prairie fire that would ultimately give all Californians-and not the state supreme court-the last word on gay marriage.

In 2000, 61 percent of California voters passed Prop 22, an initiative that codified the traditional definition of marriage. Gay activists and their allies sued, and in 2005, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer declared Prop 22 unconstitutional. Conservatives appealed, and by 2007, the case had wound its way to the state supreme court.

Given the high court's activist history, a coalition of conservatives immediately submitted to the secretary of state a measure that would go farther than Prop 22 and would amend the state constitution. But amendment backers held only thin hope: The initiative would need nearly 700,000 voter signatures to qualify for the November 2008 ballot, and there was almost no money for paid signature-gathering. In 2006, a volunteer signature-collection effort on a similar measure had fallen miserably short.

Meanwhile, throughout 2007, several major California cities, including Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco, aligned with gay activists, signing onto a friend-of-court brief in support of same-sex marriage.

Then came a political moment that proved pivotal for the whole state: Liberals on the San Diego city council forced its members to pick a side.

As a destination city, San Diego is known nationally for its crystalline beaches and heavenly weather. But in California, it is also known as the most conservative major city in the state. The third largest, San Diego is home to both a crackerjack GOP chapter and a large evangelical population. Those factors and others combine to make it the only major California city to consistently elect Republicans to high office.

In fact, if it weren't for a flip-flopping Republican mayor named Jerry Sanders, the fat lady might already have sung on gay marriage in the Golden State.

Nationally, gay activists and their allies like to wonder aloud why anyone in California is worried about the fat lady at all. Writing on the fallout from Massachusetts' legalization of gay marriage in 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist William Butte opined, "Fathers haven't demanded the right to marry their daughters. Polygamy is still illegal. The sky hasn't fallen."

Perhaps not the sky. But both polygamists and advocates of "man-boy" love have become more vocal in recent years, wondering why their proclivities should not also be recognized as the latest "sexual minority." And unlike Massachusetts, California does not restrict out-of-state homosexual couples from marrying in California then suing for recognition in their home states.

But Massachusetts may be changing. Following California's lead, the Massachusetts Senate on July 15 voted to repeal a 1913 law that had kept couples from obtaining marriage licenses in the state if they couldn't legally wed in their home states. The House was expected to vote on the measure by July 18. If Massachusetts does lift its out-of-state restriction, access to gay marriage across the nation will be virtually bulletproof: In June 2007, state lawmakers defeated an effort to amend the Massachusetts constitution to recognize only traditional marriage. The issue cannot be revisited until 2012.

The 14th Amendment equal-protection argument in favor of gay marriage already is trampling First Amendment rights to religious exercise and free speech.


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