President Bush on Wednesday said he was “troubled” by San Francisco’s same-sex wedding spree, but he declined to say whether he was prepared to back a constitutional ban on such vows. Meanwhile, the mayor said the city would keep issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, even as conservative groups pressed their case in a higher court.
In response to a question during a White House appearance about the issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples in the city, Bush said, “I have watched carefully what’s happening in San Francisco, where licenses were being issued, even though the law states otherwise. I have consistently stated that I’ll support law to protect marriage between a man and a woman. Obviously these events are influencing my decision.”
“I am watching very carefully, but I am troubled by what I’ve seen,” he added.
He didn’t answer directly when asked whether he is any closer to endorsing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, as conservative groups say the White House has assured them Bush will do.
Criticism of ‘activist judges’
“I strongly believe marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman,” Bush said during an Oval Office session with Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “I am troubled by activist judges who are defining marriage.”
“People need to be involved in this decision,” Bush said. “Marriage ought to be defined by the people not by the courts.”
Bush apparently was referring to a recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that it is unconstitutional to bar gay couples from marriage. Under the decision, the nation’s first legally sanctioned gay marriages are scheduled to begin in mid-May.
State lawmakers are proposing a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and the Legislature resumes its deliberations of amendments on March 11.
Opponents have asked courts in San Francisco to halt the issuance of the licenses, but on Tuesday a pair of Superior Court judges declined to intervene.
During separate hearings, the judges ruled that they were not yet prepared to prohibit city officials from engaging in the collective act of civil disobedience that has allowed more than 2,600 same-sex couples to be married at City Hall since Thursday.
“There was nothing particularly compelling after today that makes me think that we should back off,” Mayor Gavin Newsom said in announcing that the city would go on sanctioning same-sex unions until told otherwise by the courts.
Hearing set for Friday
At the same time, it remains uncertain just how long San Francisco’s unprecedented wedding march will go on. After denying an anti-gay marriage group’s request for a temporary restraining order strictly on procedural grounds, one judge scheduled a Friday hearing on the matter.
In the other case, Superior Court Judge James L. Warren refused to grant a different group’s petition for a stay that would have abruptly halted the weddings. He said the plaintiffs had not met the legal burden required for such an emergency order.
Warren did, however, agree to order the city to either “cease and desist” issuing the disputed licenses or to come back to court on March 29 and explain why they haven’t, a ruling that attorneys for both sides claimed as a victory.
“The judge would not issue a cease and desist order unless the judge made a determination that the mayor is in violation” of the law, said Robert Tyler, a lawyer for the Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund, an anti-gay marriage group that takes its name from an approved ballot measure limiting legal marriage to heterosexual couples.
But San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera insisted the judge had made no such determination and that the city had scored a major triumph by getting six more weeks to issue marriage licenses to gay couples and the chance to argue its case “on the merits.”
‘We have very strong arguments’
“We believe we have very strong arguments,” Herrera said.
Newsom maintains he had the legal authority to direct the county clerk to allow same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses because the California Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California legal scholar, described Warren’s ruling as a short-term victory for the city. But the final decision will ultimately rest with a higher court, Chemerinsky said.
“This is an issue that is going to be decided by the California Supreme Court,” he said. “These are just the early stages of what’s going to be a long legal battle.”
Warren’s nonbinding order frustrated conservatives who also failed earlier in the day to persuade another judge, Ronald Quidachay, to halt the weddings as part of a separate challenge, which was filed by the Campaign for California Families, a group that advocates limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.
Higher court asked to intervene
On Tuesday afternoon, the group took its request for a restraining order to an appellate court in San Francisco, saying it had no choice but “to ask them to uphold California state law since Judge Quidachay is choosing not to act.”
Tyler, the lawyer for the Proposition 22 fund, said his clients also would appeal Warren’s decision to a higher court if San Francisco keeps permitting gay couples to wed, as Newsom clearly stated it would.
In addition to blocking San Francisco from sanctioning more same-sex unions, both groups are also seeking to have the marriages already recorded declared null and void.
Couples who were among the thousands to have exchanged vows here in recent days were cheered by Tuesday’s court developments, but said they recognized they probably have to wait before they’ll know what their marriage certificates will really mean.
Gay and lesbian couples from Europe and more than 20 states have lined up outside the ornate City Hall since city officials decided to begin marrying same-sex couples six days ago in a public challenge to President Bush’s comments against gay marriage.
Schwarzenegger seeks a halt
City officials said 172 couples were married Tuesday, a pace that would bring the total number who have taken vows promising to be “spouses for life” to over 3,000 by Friday.
On Tuesday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged city officials to stop the same-sex weddings.
“Californians spoke on the issue of same-sex marriage when they overwhelmingly approved California’s law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “I support that law and encourage San Francisco officials to obey that law. The courts should act quickly to resolve this matter.”