Overturning of Prop. 8 spurs celebration

Jessica Mahoney displays a rainbow flag with a peace sign Wednesday on Henderson Avenue. She, along with about 20 other members of the gay community, celebrated after a federal judge decided to overturn California's same sex marriage ban.

A federal judge’s landmark ruling to overturn California’s gay marriage ban kindled a celebratory rally Wednesday evening on Henderson Avenue.

Gay couples, their children and their supporters, waived rainbow flags, and drew honks from passerbys, elated that Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker determined Proposition 8 violates constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. Riley Kent, 6, held a sign reading “I love gay moms.”

Walker methodically rejected every argument posed by sponsors of the ban in response to a lawsuit filed by two gay couples who claimed Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban, violated their civil rights.

“He called it within the purview of the law,” Porterville resident John Coffee said. “From what I can tell, the ruling is very comprehensive and it’s very thorough.”

Coffee had read to page 20 of the 136-page ruling before heading out to the celebration at 5 p.m. He was accompanied by his husband Brock Neeley — the first men to be married in Tulare County. They were both pleased that the federal judge, a Republican, had referred to gays and lesbians as a suspect class, meaning they deserve special scrutiny in all laws like racial minorities.

Coffee and Neeley said they have followed the trial closely, including reading volumes of testimony transcripts.

“After reading all the transcripts, I knew how it should go — but I’ve been known to be wrong,” Coffee said.

Walker heard 13 days of testimony and arguments since January during the first trial in federal court to examine if states can prohibit gays from getting married.

The plaintiffs presented 18 witnesses. Academic experts testified about topics ranging from the fitness of gay parents and religious views on homosexuality to the historical meaning of marriage and the political influence of the gay rights movement.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson teamed up with David Boies to argue the case, bringing together the two litigators best known for representing George W. Bush and Al Gore in the disputed 2000 election.

Defense lawyers called just two witnesses, claiming they did not need to present expert testimony because the U.S. Supreme Court had never specifically upheld the right to gay marriage. The attorneys also said gay marriage was an experiment with unknown social consequences that should be left to voters to accept or reject.

Walker, however, found it violated the Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses while failing “to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license.”

“Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples,” the judge wrote.

California’s electorate passed Proposition 8 with 52 percent of the vote in November 2008 after the most expensive political campaign on a social issue in U.S. history.

Supporters, including many conservatives like Springville resident Dennis Townsend, argued the ban was necessary to safeguard the traditional understanding of marriage and to encourage responsible childbearing.

The City Council’s September 2008 decision to back Proposition 8, at the suggestion of councilman Brian Ward, divided members of the community, who spent countless hours debating the issue in City Hall during the Council meetings that followed.

“The Porterville City Council expresses their support of Proposition 8 and challenges the other incorporated cities and Tulare County Board of Supervisors to join them in this support, and also urges Porterville voters to protect the sanctity of traditional marriage by voting yes on Proposition 8,” the City’s administrative analyst, Linda Clark, wrote in announcing the council’s action.

Strathmore resident Anne Thomas, 37, was married to her wife a few months after Coffee and Neeley and said her decision to wed was based on a desire to access the same legal rights as those awarded to heterosexual couples. Primarily she said she wanted hospital visitation rights to see her wife, a diabetic, in the hospital.

“It’s important to me that when I walk into the hospital not to be questioned on my power of attorney,” she said. “Now I have that.”

While they considered the ruling a victory, same-sex couples recognize there is still work  to be done. Gay marriage will not be allowed to resume immediately.

Judge Walker said he wants to decide whether his order should be suspended while the proponents of the ban pursue their appeal. He ordered both sides to submit written arguments by Friday on the issue.

“Today’s ruling is clearly a disappointment. The judge’s invalidation of the votes of over seven million Californians violates binding legal precedent and short-circuits the democratic process. But this is not the end of our fight to uphold the will of the people for traditional marriage, as we now begin an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Andy Pugno, general counsel for ProtectMarriage.com, said.

The appeal would go first to the 9th Circuit then to the U.S. Supreme Court if the high court justices agree to review it.

“There’s always going to be issues that need rabble-rousing ... and people to thank, like Judge Vaughn Walker,” Coffee, who celebrated his two year anniversary with Neeley on June 17, said.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Jenna Chandler at 784-5000, Ext. 1050, or jchandler@portervillerecorder.com.

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