Expect a pitched battle in the weeks to come as proponents and opponents of Proposition 8 roll out TV ads and debate whether or not this simple phrase -- "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California" -- should be inserted into the state's constitution.
In a sense the initiative is a re-run of Prop. 22, which used the same language -- and passed in the 2000 election -- but only changed the state Family Code. In May of this year the California Supreme Court ruled that any statute limiting marriage to a relationship between a man and a woman is a violation of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. As a result of that ruling, as of June 17, 2008, same-sex marriage is deemed valid in California.
Battlelines were drawn this summer regarding the name of the initiative. The proponents, led by a group called Protect Marriage, qualified it as the "California Marriage Protection Act," but Attorney General Jerry Brown changed the ballot language to the "Limit on Marriage" Constitutional Amendment, to indicate that its passage would take way an existing right. Proponents filed a lawsuit to change it back. It failed.
"We still call it the Protect Marriage Initiative," said Chip White, spokesman for Protect Marriage-Yes on 8, calling from the group's Sacramento headquarters. "What Prop. 8 would do is protect the people's will. In 2000 over 61 percent of Californians voted in favor of Prop. 22 ... but four activist judges in San Francisco wrongly overturned the people's vote."
For Jan Topp, who married her longtime partner Terrianne in August, the issues involved are more than ones of semantics. "My partner is in law enforcement; we have two children, we've been together for 10 years. There are a lot of things this affects: her retirement and the amount they take out for medical benefits for spouses versus domestic partners, things like that. Domestic partners are not the same as marriage.
"My partner -- my wife -- puts her life on the line every day for the citizens of this town and for them to turn around and tell her that they have a say in what she does in her private life and who she marries, that's just not right. Discrimination like that has no place in anyone's life. It just breeds hatred."
To a great degree the financial support for Yes on 8 falls along religious lines. The Protect Marriage group notes support from evangelical religious leader James Dobson's Focus on the Family and from the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus. Major funding for the "Yes" side has also come from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons. According to White, "People of all faiths and people of no faith support Prop. 8."
Of course there are also many religious leaders who oppose the initiative. Stan Smith-Hanes, spokesman for the Humboldt chapter of Marriage Equality U.S.A., a group fighting against 8 locally, also serves also a deacon for the United Church of Christ in Eureka. "This is a civil rights issue that's been highjacked by the churches," said Smith-Hanes.
To its supporters, Prop. 8 is not about civil rights, it's a means to return marriage to what they see as its "traditional definition."
"Prop. 8 is about preserving marriage," said White. "It's not an attack on the gay lifestyle. It doesn't take away any rights from gay or lesbian domestic partners."
Smith-Hanes disagrees vehemently. "They say domestic partnership is the same thing as marriage. No, it's not. Domestic partnership and civil unions are not universal -- the word 'marriage' is the only word recognized worldwide."
One of the arguments put forward on the ballot in favor of Prop. 8 regards the effect of the court's same-sex marriage ruling on education.
"Very simply, Prop. 8 protects our children," said White. "If the same-sex law is not overturned, teachers will be required to teach children as young as kindergarten that there is no difference between gay marriage and traditional man/woman marriage."
Both Smith-Hanes and Topp dispute the truth in that argument. The nature of marriage is not something routinely discussed in kindergarten, however, said Topp, it's something that probably should be taught.
"Love is love -- that's what we try to teach to our kids. People might be different, they might have different hair color or skin color, or they might come from adoptive parents or split families, but the bottom line is, you live together and persevere as a family. We're a family like any other."
There's at least one thing both sides seem to agree on. As White put it, "People all over America are watching this initiative, that much is clear. California is something of a bellwether state."
Smith-Hanes hopes that the state will lead the way just as we did in 1948, when the California Supreme Court was the first in the nation to strike down a ban on interracial marriage. "We're trying to protect a right that has finally been given us," he concluded.