Court's Prop 8 decision a stern rebuke to its backersby Tom Waters -CTV News
LOS ANGELES — Last week , in a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeal struck down California's contentious Proposition 8.
But while the ruling has been viewed primarily for its legal effect, it is much more than a rejection of Prop 8 itself. It's a new and forceful rebuke to its backers.
Proposition 8 was the referendum, narrowly approved by voters in 2008, that put a stop to same-sex marriages in California and became a political fault line dividing the state.
On one side of that divide: the religious and social conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage and support Prop 8. On the other side: liberals, civil libertarians, most of California's elected officials, and -- not least -- the gays and lesbians whose private lives have been held up for public debate.
Before last week's ruling, Proposition 8 had already been declared unconstitutional. But opponents of same-sex marriage had appealed, hoping for a different outcome. And if they had also hoped for a moral judgment from the court, they got one. Just not the one they had in mind.
The deciding judges have openly questioned the motives of Prop 8's supporters, stripping away the cloak of good intentions and finding only naked prejudice.
In public at least, opponents of same-sex marriage have often said: "We're not anti-gay. We're just trying to protect the sanctity of traditional marriage."
But now the court has looked them in the eye and said, bluntly, you are anti-gay.
"It will not do to say that proposition 8 was intended only to disapprove of same-sex marriage, rather than to pass judgment on same-sex couples as people," the court says.
Proposition 8 is "a judgment… that gays and lesbians are of lesser worth."
What's more, the court says that's all it is.
"Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite sex couples."
Certainly all parties agree that Proposition 8 "serves no purpose, and has no effect" other than to deny same-sex couples the status of marriage. It does not give or take away any other rights or benefits.
Proposition 8 supporters maintain that they have been acting out of a desire to protect religious rights and the integrity of the family. But the court found this claim simply untrue. Such motives "cannot have been rational bases for this measure… because Proposition 8 did not further any of these interests."
That's because Prop 8 has no effect on any laws governing family, child-rearing, religious freedom, or any other aspect of life apart from the single, narrow question of who can use the word "marriage."
And the court said that attempts by supporters to claim that Prop 8 serves some valid public-policy interest "cannot be credited as rational."
It found the sole purpose of the measure was to deprive gays and lesbians of status, merely for the sake of doing so. And the "inevitable inference" is that Proposition 8 was born solely out of "disapproval of gays and lesbians."
To support its argument that the true motive for Prop 8 is nothing more than animosity toward homosexuals, the court points to the rhetoric of the referendum campaign. The initiative was promoted, it says, "in terms designed to appeal to stereotypes of gays and lesbians as predators, threats to children, and practitioners of a deviant ‘lifestyle.'"
The court stopped short of accusing voters of calculated ill-will. But applying the words of an earlier judgment to them, it said "Prejudice, we are beginning to understand, rises not from malice or hostile animus alone." It may also come from "longstanding, sincerely held private beliefs."
But no matter where these personal biases originate, the court says, "a desire to harm" is not a legitimate legislative interest. And neither is "basic disapproval of a class of people."
The legal question, of course, is "whether a majority may use the power of the state" to validate and enforce its own prejudices "through a law that abridges minority individuals' rights." The court says unequivocally it may not.
However, same-sex marriage is not just an issue of law, but of values. And in ruling on one, the court has also weighed in on the other.
While those opposed to same-sex marriage frame much of their argument in moral terms, the court found their case to have little or no moral substance.
It is faint praise indeed if the best that can be said of Prop 8 supporters is that they are not motivated by "malice or hostile animus… alone."
But perhaps most significant, the court has exposed a basic lack of good faith. And in the final analysis, how can it even be said that Prop 8 supporters "mean well," if the one and only thing they actually mean to do is devalue the human worth of another group in society?