Armageddon In California?

Religious Right Groups See California Marriage Referendum As Ground Zero In The Culture War

Robin Tyler and Diane Olson spent every Valentine’s Day since 2001 at a courthouse in Beverly Hills seeking a marriage license in recognition of their years of commitment to each other.

Every year, they were turned down by the same clerk, until finally, on June 16, the state official handed them a California marriage license, which now reads “spouse and spouse” instead of “husband and wife.”

Their wedding ceremony, which was performed by a rabbi outside that same courthouse, included 65 invitees, as well as more than 100 reporters and photographers from all over the world who wanted to document the historic moment.

Tyler and Olson became the first lesbian or gay couple to marry, after spending more than 15 years pioneering the fight for marriage equality. The two were plaintiffs in the California Supreme Court case, Tyler v. County of L.A., which was just decided in mid-May. For the first time, a court extended the institution of marriage to lesbian and gay couples.

“It is marriage equality,” Tyler said. “They didn’t invent a new certificate of marriage. They extended the current definition of marriage to include us.”

Tyler and Olson finally had their wedding day. Their union drew worldwide media coverage, but the day wasn’t free from the hostility of Religious Right demonstrators.

“They were yelling that we were going to hell,” Tyler said “At a Jewish wedding! They think they have a cornerstone on what is moral. They are not our definition of morality.”

Those demonstrators were an early skirmish in a new war Tyler and Olson now have to fight in California. The couple has won their fundamental right to marry from the highest court in the state, yet they will have to battle to keep it, thanks to Religious Right groups pushing Proposition 8, an initiative that will appear on California’s November ballot.

Proposition 8 would amend California’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage by defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. If passed, the amendment would alter the state’s constitution so the recent California Supreme Court decision would no longer be applicable.

Tyler and Olson have been hopeful that their marriage would show Californians that “we haven’t fallen into the Pacific Ocean or the world hasn’t ended because we have married each other,” and stop reasonable people from voting for Proposition 8.

“Surely, once the public saw the joy on the faces of all of the same-sex couples getting married in California, and saw that nothing was going to be taken away from their own marriages, they would not vote for a mean-spirited constitutional amendment that protected nothing except the right to discriminate,” Tyler wishfully wrote in a blog for the Huffington Post soon after the Supreme Court’s decision came down.

To some degree, Tyler has been right – seeing her and Olson’s happiness has changed the viewpoint of many Californians. Prior to the Supreme Court decision, polls showed that 51 percent of people in California were against same-sex marriages, but a CBS poll, taken the day following the court’s decision, showed that 57 percent of Californians are pro-marriage equality.

Yet Religious Right groups do see losing Proposition 8 as the end of the world – the “Armageddon of the culture war,” as Religious Right leader Charles Colson said, quoting a Princeton professor during a conference call with pastors who were strategizing to pass Proposition 8. Conservative Christian forces think the Bible mandates marriage as between a man and a woman, and they want governmental policy to reflect that doctrinal position.

“This is where if we lose, it would be very hard to turn the ship right again,” said Colson, according to a report in Charisma, a leading Pentecostal magazine. “If we win, we might start rolling back the other side. This is a major, major struggle, and we should spare nothing in defining marriage the way every civilization has as the union of one man and one woman joined together as one flesh, as we believe in the Scripture in order to procreate.”

Religious Right forces will have plenty of help.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) has also spoken out strongly in favor of Proposition 8. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in June, “the church’s top leaders called on California Mormons to ‘do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating your means and time.’”

In early August, the California Catholic Conference issued a statement urging followers to volunteer and provide financial support to pass Proposition 8. Though the bishops said they believe in treating everyone with dignity, they insisted that it is “ideal for the well being of children” to be raised by a mother and father.

In addition to California, Arizona and Florida also have similar amendments on their November ballots. Near the end of July, roughly 3,000 pastors from all three states joined in a Religious Right-convened conference call to develop a strategy to get these amendments passed.

Beginning Sept. 24, some will fast and pray for 40 days, ending Election Day. Other major prayer events are being planned in these states for Nov. 1, according to Charisma magazine.

The conference call was hosted by Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, who started the petition drive to get Proposition 8 on the ballot. Others on the call included Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and Colson.

“This is a spiritual battle; it must be won in prayer,” said Lou Engle.

Engle is co-founder of TheCall, a theocracy-minded movement gathering young adults to pray and fast for breakthrough and revival. “We need to take away the rights of the powers of darkness to bring this kind of resolution forward….”

Speakers on the conference call encouraged pastors to host voter registration drives, commit to prayer and fasting and raise money for the marriage campaigns. California pastors are urging their congregations to pray twice a day, at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., so Proposition 8 passes.

Long before the California high court’s decision even came down, Garlow spearheaded the petition drive to get Proposition 8 on the ballot. In November 2007, 200 pastors and other conservative Christian leaders met at his church, where “speaker after speaker reiterated what churches stood to lose, the centrality of Scripture to the issue, and the need for an amendment petition drive that would move quickly,” reported World, an evangelical newsweekly.

Soon after Garlow’s meeting, conservative Christian groups, including  the California Family Council and Protect Marriage, began mobilizing pastors to participate in a petition drive to get an anti-gay marriage amendment on the ballot that would state, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in the state of California.”

In addition to Garlow, Chris Clark, a pastor of East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church and the Rev. Miles MacPherson, a former defensive back for the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, also took leading roles.

“When I heard what was happening and what was at stake, I wanted to fight,” MacPherson told World. “I did not want to look back on this and have to look God in the eye and have Him say, ‘Why didn’t you do something? I gave you a big mouth – why didn’t you use it?’”

Fortunately, MacPherson is not the only one who is speaking out. Though their petition drive ended in a collection of 1.12 million signatures, more than enough to place it on the ballot, Religious Right activists will not have the last word on the definition of marriage in the state of California.

Stephanie Campbell, Americans United’s Orange County chapter leader, is working with the Equality California’s No on 8 Campaign. So are other AU chapters in the Golden State. Together the coalition is educating on the ballot initiative and correcting Religious Right propaganda.

Conservative religious groups are wrongly preaching to voters that under the new Cal­ifornia Supreme Court de­cision, pastors would be re­quired to go against their own doctrines to perform lesbian and gay wedding ceremonies, or risk losing state tax-exempt status. Pastors might even face criminal penalties, they say.

Neither claim is true.

“Religious groups and clergy members have a constitutionally protected right to recognize or refuse to recognize religious marriages based on the tenets of their particular faith,” Equality California writes on its Web site. “That has not changed and will not change. But the government can’t discriminate against same-sex couples when issuing civil marriage licenses or solemnizing civil marriages.”

The Religious Right’s claims are blatantly false, AU’s Campbell said. Though it seems unlikely that their tactics could fool most California voters, Campbell thinks Religious Right influence is widespread even in a state considered liberal on social issues.

“It’s not overt like states with Christian license plates or those that are trying to teach creationism in schools,” Campbell said, “but in our county, almost every city is putting ‘In God We Trust;’ in city council chambers. For councils that couldn’t decide, it is on the November ballot. It’s become a really big deal, and these kinds of issues will bring out the Religious Right to vote.

“Over the past eight years, there is a lot more conservative voting in California,” Campbell continued. “It would be a mistake to assume that we will win; we have to be out there fighting this.”

Both Tyler and Olson are on board with Americans United and plan to speak at chapter events in Orange County and Bakersfield. The couple sees Proposition 8 not only as an equal protection issue, but also as a clear violation of separation of church and state.

Olson’s grandfather, Culbert Levy Olson, was the first elected Democra­tic governor of California and ran on a separation-of-church-and-state platform, making this battle hit even closer to home.

“This is the church trying to control the state,” Tyler said. “If they say it’s because of their religious beliefs, somehow they are entitled to discriminate against you. AU clearly understands that the religious point of view of one person should not take away the civil rights of anyone else.”

Tyler thinks the proposition is likely to lose, taking the optimistic view that the “fight against marriage equality is now on our side.”

“When we walk across the street or go into a Starbucks, people say ‘Oh, it’s you, congratulations,” Olson said. “We haven’t had one negative response.”

Even Republican Gov. Arnold Schwar­z­enegger seems to believe the Religious Right’s attempts are just wasting everyone’s time. When he appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” June 29, Schwarzenegger said he did not support Proposition 8, and that the state should accept the decision of the California Supreme Court.

“There are so many other more important issues that we have to address in California,” he said. “So I think to spend any time on this initiative… is a waste of time.”

Since the Supreme Court decision, Cal­i­fornia Attorney General Jerry Brown altered the title and summary lang­uage of Proposition 8, making it clear that if voters voted “yes” for Prop­osition 8, California could “lose sev­eral tens of millions of dollars in sales taxes.”

Brown also changed the ballot title of Proposition 8 from “limit on marriage” to “eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry,” in order to explain that Proposition 8 would be the first amendment written into the state constitution that takes rights away from citizens.

“The Supreme Court ruled that we are protected by the Constitution,” Tyler said. “This is finally telling the truth of what this is about. This is not to ‘save marriage,’ it is to take away a civil right from a minority group of people.”

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) filed a lawsuit after Brown changed the title and summary language, arguing that the new version is biased. The ADF, a powerful Religious Right legal group founded by TV preachers, also spread more misleading propaganda by arguing that without the amendment, schools would have to teach children about gay marriage.

After hearing arguments from both sides, a California Superior Court ruled that the title was an accurate statement of the amendment’s primary purpose. The court also rejected the assertion that marriage by same-sex couples would be required in Cal­ifornia school curriculum. Under Cal­ifornia statutes, children “cannot be required to attend any health-related instruction, including instruction on the subject of marriage, against their parents’ will.”

Still, the Religious Right trudges on, claiming redefining marriage could severely limit “religious freedom.”

“This is ground zero in a culture war that the California Supreme Court just declared on Christianity and every single faith,” Maggie Gal­lagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage and co-author of The Case for Marriage, said during the July conference call, as reported by Charisma. “I’m here to tell you the consequences to the liberty of the church and other faith traditions are very real and serious.”

But not all religious groups feel their faith traditions are threatened by marriage equality. California Faith for Equality, along with the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry, filed an amicus brief prior to the California Supreme Court’s decision supporting freedom to marry. More than 400 clergy and congregations from a variety of faiths also signed the brief.

“Every movement for liberation and progressive social change has been fueled by people of faith and religious communities – from the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the civil rights movement,” the Rev. Dr. Jay Johnson, an Episcopal priest, said on an advocacy video for California Faith for Equality. “People of faith and religious communities have every reason to support the freedom of all people to marry whom they choose.”