SACRAMENTO — The state Assembly on Tuesday voted to allow gay couples to marry in a challenge to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has said he would veto the bill if it passes the full Legislature.
Lawmakers approved the measure on a party-line vote, with the majority saying the Legislature should not to wait for the state Supreme Court to act on the issue. It passed 42-34.
"This does in fact provide equal marriage rights for all citizens of California," bill author Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said as he began what marked the lengthiest debate so far this year on the Assembly floor.
"By denying a group of individuals the right to marry, we denigrate that entire group and deny them citizenship."
The bill now goes to the Senate, which adopted a similar measure in 2005. In his veto at that time, Schwarzenegger wrote that a gay marriage bill would violate Proposition 22, an initiative passed by California voters in 2000 that bars the state from recognizing out-of-state, same-sex marriages.
In February, the Republican governor told a group of high school students that he would veto Leno's bill again. Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said Tuesday that the governor had not taken a position on the bill, but "his position on the issue has been consistent—he supports the will of the people who voted on this."
Republican lawmakers agreed with the governor's concerns during the 90-minute debate.
"The will of the people has been spoken," said Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia. "We run the dangerous path of this vehicle becoming a precedent-setting opportunity to undermine the initiative process. We have a responsibility to honor Proposition 22."
Supporters disagreed with that interpretation. The 14-word initiative covers only marriages outside California and does not apply to marriages performed in the state, Leno said.
Although most of the debate rested on the legal arguments, both Republicans and Democrats said the issue came down to morality and the institution of marriage.
Several Republicans said their Christian faith required them to reject homosexuality as immoral and as a personal choice of gays and lesbians. Democrats said marriage should be open to everyone as matter of fairness.
"There ought to be a few standards that stand the test of time, marriage being one of them," said Assemblyman Doug La Malfa, R-Chico. "An institution that has lasted thousands of years in one form, that we would change it in the Legislature is pretty arrogant of us."
Tuesday's debate remained civil, without the kind of name-calling and animosity that characterized previous votes on similar bills. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, said the tone illustrated how times have changed.
In 2003, California recognized domestic partners, creating a registry that affords same-sex couples many of the rights given to married couples. Domestic partners do not qualify for a host of financial federal benefits, however, including income tax breaks, Social Security beneficiary rules and veterans benefits.
They also do not have clear legal rights to make medical decisions for their partners—an experience recounted on the floor by Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, a gay lawmaker who said his place was questioned when his partner was seriously ill.
"We here in the Legislature talk a lot about fairness, equality and doing the right thing," said Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka. "Now we have the opportunity to do it."
Massachusetts is the only state that allows same-sex couples to marry. Connecticut, Vermont, California, New Jersey, Maine and Washington have laws allowing either civil unions or domestic partnerships, with New Hampshire and Oregon set to join that group in January. Hawaii extends certain spousal rights to same-sex couples and cohabiting heterosexual pairs.
Lawmakers said it was time for California to follow Massachusetts.
"What we have here is the need to overcome fear, fear of change, fear of that what is different from us," said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Sherman Oaks.
The debate over California's one man-one woman marriage law, which was codified in state law in 1977, is likely to be decided later this year or early next year by the state Supreme Court.
Two Orange County men have challenged the state's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional because it violates equal protection, privacy and free expression rights.
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