Opinion: Santa Clara County fights for equal right to marry

by Ann Ravel [Original appeared in The Mercury News]

Santa Clara County’s decision to join San Francisco and the city of Los Angeles in challenging Proposition 8 in court is not only about marriage or about sexual orientation discrimination, as important as those issues are to our community. It is about far deeper principles that bind us together.

When the people of California drafted our state constitution, we agreed that certain rules were at the core of the government we created. The right to equal treatment under the law is one of those guiding principles, crafted to guard all of us from unfair treatment and from making discriminatory decisions we later regret as a community. This is why the county petitioned the California Supreme Court to bar enforcement of the initiative.

Our country’s painful history has shown us that not every decision is best left to the will of the majority. Recognizing that minorities will always be vulnerable to discrimination by majorities, the people of California created the rule of equal protection as a core principle in the state constitution. A system of courts was given the responsibility for protecting the right to equality, especially for groups that might be targeted by the prejudice of the moment.

When the initiative process was created by a 1911 amendment to the constitution, it was intended to allow direct democratic participation in lawmaking, not to be used to veto the courts when they perform their most critical role — protecting minority rights. Allowing a majority of voters to undercut the court’s core role in protecting vulnerable minorities would distort the initiative process and upset the equality principle that makes our democratic system of government work.

If a majority of voters may amend the constitution to strip same-sex couples of their constitutional right to equal protection, a majority could just as easily declare by initiative that people of color can be discriminated against in public employment or that Jews cannot use public facilities without a special permit. Voters in Santa Clara County recognize the importance of these principles, and more than 55 percent voted to reject Proposition 8.

The California Supreme Court has held that all couples have a right to be treated equally when it comes to the important institution of marriage. In May, the Court recognized that laws that treat people differently based on immutable characteristics like sexual orientation are subject to the strictest level of scrutiny by the courts. The court ruled that our constitution does not allow us to treat gay and lesbian people unequally by “reflecting an official view that their committed relationships are of lesser stature than the comparable relationships of opposite-sex couples.” Therefore, the court concluded, excluding same-sex couples from marriage is discriminatory and violates our equal protection clause. Santa Clara County was proud to be part of the process that put that commitment to equality into practice when we began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in June.

This county is part of the legal challenge to Proposition 8 because we recognize the importance of upholding our most cherished legal principles. If California is allowed to vote our way back into discrimination, we betray the values that are central to our society. The challenge to Proposition 8 upholds the social pact of equality that helped form the foundation of our society and ensures that each of us can count on fair treatment under the law.

Ann Ravel is Santa Clara County counsel.

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