- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Monday, California issued its first marriage licenses to gay couples. Thousands of happy men and women soon will avail themselves of this right, which was identified and affirmed by a 4-3 majority of the California Supreme Court on May 15.

I would like to address one of the longer threads in this landmark ruling - its long-term impact. There will be two kinds of consequences - intended and unintended, and history will determine which will be most significant.

The 121-page majority opinion was thoroughly upbeat and clear about its intended consequences. Legalizing marriage for gay couples should open the door for them “to live a happy, meaningful and satisfying life” as full members of society, the court said.

It should ensure that their “official family relationship [is] accorded dignity and respect equal to that conferred upon the family relationship of opposite-sex couples,” the court said. And it should end other “unequal treatment” of gay couples - they shouldn’t have to register for “second-class” domestic partnerships, for instance.

The California court also was clear about what its ruling wouldn’t do.

Legalizing gay marriage “will not alter the legal framework of the institution of marriage,” since married gays will have the same obligations and duties as other married couples, it said.

The ruling “will not impinge upon the religious freedom of any religious organization, official, or any other person. … [N]o 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.”

As for heterosexuals, “*pposite-sex couples will continue to enjoy precisely the same constitutional rights they traditionally have possessed, unimpaired by our recognition” of gay marriage, it said.

Moreover, legalizing gay marriage “will not deprive any opposite-sex couple or their children of any of the rights and benefits conferred by the marriage statutes, but simply will make the benefit of the marriage designation available to same-sex couples and their children,” the court said, quoting New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye: “There are enough marriage licenses to go around for everyone.”

The dissenting opinion from California Supreme Court Associate Justices Marvin Baxter and Ming Chin wasn’t nearly as sanguine about the ruling’s impact.

It is a “cataclysmic transformation of this venerable institution,” they wrote. Quoting the New Jersey Supreme Court, the dissenters said: “We cannot escape the reality that the shared societal meaning of marriage - passed down through the common law into our statutory law - has always been the union of a man and a woman. To alter that meaning would render a profound change in the public consciousness of a social institution of ancient origin.”

In my reading of the decision, the majority opinion didn’t seem to look beyond today’s celebrations.

For now, the die is cast. Many gay couples are laughing with joy today: Their long waits are over. Many gay activists are celebrating, too: Today marks the payoff of years of strategizing and fundraising, backed by determination and personal conviction.

But what will be the outcomes of this historic decision?

Will the court’s intended consequences prevail? Or will unintended - unforeseen - consequences overshadow the court’s expectations?

If a venerable institution of bedrock importance undergoes a “cataclysmic transformation,” it seems irrational to think that the consequences will be (a) knowable at the start and (b) completely beneficial for society.

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