Why Does California's Proposition 8 Ruling Matter? Here's Everything You Need to Know



Back in December, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments about whether an amendment to California's state constitution, proposition 8, was unconstitutional. Yesterday, the appeals court rendered a judgment, ruling 2-1 that proposition 8 was, in fact, unconstitutional.

Here's what you need to know about this historic decision.

In 2000, California adopted an initiative statutory enactment, initiative 22, which said that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The most important thing to note is that initiative 22 was equivalent in power to a legislative act, and so the California Constitution took precedent over it. Because of the precedence of the California state constitution, a gay couple along with the city and county of San Francisco were able to successfully challenge and overturn the law by arguing, in part, that the law violated California's equal protection clause. The logic in this decision was strikingly similar to the logic behind Brown v. Board of Education. The court argued that homosexual couples should be able to participate in the institution of marriage and that it was not enough that they were given the chance to utilize a different but roughly equivalent institution (civil unions).

California then went on to issue roughly 18,000 marriage licenses.

However, Dennis Hollingsworth, Gail Knight, Martin Gutierrez, Hak-Shing William Tam, and Mark Jansson collected signatures to put a proposal on the November 4, 2008. This ballot initiative, known as Proposition 8, was passed by the people of California and because it amended the California constitution, it was immune from the ruling of the state supreme court on initiative 22.

Thus, a challenge had to be waged at the federal level. In May 2009, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier initiated such a challenge arguing that California's constitution violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

After rulings from a district court (rendered by judge who, to the outrage of some, was in a homosexual relationship at the time), the case was eventually heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which rendered the decision yesterday.

When a law treats a certain group of people differently than others, there must be a compelling state interest in doing so, otherwise the law is deemed to be discriminatory and ruled unconstitutional. Proposition 8 attempted to treat homosexual differently than non-homosexuals and so must have a compelling state interest behind it.

The advocates of Proposition 8 argued that the relevant state interests were strong families and reasonable procreation, but importantly, the appeals court did not take a stand on this issue. In other words, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals did not rule on whether a state interest in strong families and procreation was enough to legitimize treating homosexuals and heterosexuals differently.

Instead, the court ruled that this interest could not possibly have been at work in California which affords comparable rights to heterosexuals and homosexuals in terms of things like hospital visitation rights, tax benefits, and other privileges. The court's reasoning was that because any interest in securing strong families was shown to be disingenuous by these equal accommodations for homosexual and heterosexuals, there was no good reason to deny marriage to homosexuals. The court ruled that “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.” In other words, denying marriage served to brand a certain group with an inferior status without serving to advance any legitimate state interest. 

Photo Credit: Guilluame Paumier