September 2010 Church & State | People & Events

A federal court decision striking down California’s Proposition 8 reflected sound religious liberty principles, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that the state constitutional amendment, passed narrowly by voters in 2008, imposes a private moral viewpoint without a legitimate governmental interest and tramples on the equal rights of gay and lesbian couples.

“The state does not have an interest in enforcing private moral or religious beliefs without an accompanying secular purpose,” wrote Walker, who was named to the court by President Ronald W. Reagan and confirmed under President George H.W. Bush. 

The legal challenge was the handiwork of an unlikely legal duo: Conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, both of whom have argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, joined forces to represent same-sex couples in California.

The Aug. 4 decision was a setback for Religious Right groups, which lobbied heavily to pass the constitutional amendment, known as Proposition 8. The referendum was dominated by lavishly funded political front groups representing the Roman Catholic bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and fundamentalist Protestant churches.

Reports indicated that the Mormons spent $20 million on the effort, even though Mormons account for less than 2 percent of California’s population.

In court, Religious Right legal groups, including the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), defended Proposition 8 after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to do so.

Americans United hailed the ruling.

“This is a tremendous step forward for individual freedom and church-state separation,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “Aggressive and well-funded religious groups conspired to take away the civil marriage rights of same-sex couples in California. That was wrong, and I am delighted that the court has ruled the way it has.”

Added Lynn, “A growing number of American denominations and faith groups perform same-sex marriages. Why should the state refuse to recognize those ceremonies while approving of ceremonies by other clergy? A decent respect for church-state separation means the government should not play favorites when it comes to religion.”

In his Perry v. Schwarzenegger ruling, Walker noted that allowing same-sex marriage does not lessen anyone’s religious liberty rights.

Observed Walker, “[A]ffording same-sex couples the opportunity to obtain the designation of marriage will not impinge upon the religious freedom of any religious organization, official, or any other person; no religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.

“Marriage in the United States has always been a civil matter,” Walker continued. “Civil authorities may permit religious leaders to solemnize marriages but not to determine who may enter or leave a civil marriage. Religious leaders may determine independently whether to recognize a civil marriage or divorce but that recognition or lack thereof has no effect on the relationship under state law.”

Religious Right groups were furious over the ruling. The ADF issued a statement vowing to appeal.