When 1.6 million Washingtonians (including 88,870 Clark County residents) voted "Yes" on Proposition 74 on Nov. 6, how many of them knew they would send a message to the U.S. Supreme Court? There's no way of knowing how many of them did, but when the highest court in the land considers two cases this week pertaining to same-sex marriage, the impact of our state's landmark legislation last year cannot be ignored.
On that fall day, Washington became the first state where voters — not courts or legislatures — did the right thing and legalized same-sex marriage. Today, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage but which was overturned in district and federal appeals courts. On Wednesday, the court will consider the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Court observers rank this week's two cases as crucial as Roe v. Wade or Bush v. Gore. Liberty University law professor Ken Klukowski said recently that the cases are "not just major, not just blockbuster, but historic."
The Columbian has long supported marriage equality, and we hope the Supreme Court rules in that direction. But there's no way of predicting what will happen. One "safe" possibility is for the court to neither legalize nor ban same-sex marriage but leave it up to the states, or take some other type of hybrid stance. A ruling is expected this summer, possibly in June.
And much of the argument for marriage equality will be rooted in what happened in our state last year, where Referendum 74 passed with 53.7 percent approval (in Clark County, the measure was rejected by 52.6 percent of voters).
Washington is not alone. Nine states have legalized gay marriage. This trend reflects a relatively rapid conversion of attitude among Americans. On Monday, Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza "declared the political fight on gay marriage over," citing that sudden shift (in less than a decade) of public opinion. According to Washington Post/ABC News polls, same-sex marriage has reversed from 55 percent rejection, 41 percent support in 2004 to 58 percent support, 36 percent rejection in 2013.
However, opponents of same-sex marriage remain persistent, basing argument on traditional definitions. History speaks in their favor, they say. But a compelling argument is presented by David Boies and Ted Olson, plaintiffs' lawyers who will argue against California's Proposition 8. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution story quoted this passage from their brief: "If a history of discrimination were sufficient to justify its perpetual existence, our public schools, drinking fountains and swimming pools would still be segregated by race, our government workplaces and military institutions would still be largely off-limits to one sex — and to gays and lesbians — and marriage would still be unattainable for interracial couples."
Across America, about 120,000 same-sex couples have been legally married. That's almost a quarter-million Americans. Now the Supreme Court will start deciding how much those people really matter.