Less than two hours after the California Supreme Court announced its 43 decision legalizing same-sex marriage, San Francisco City Hall filled with smiling couples and local politicians of various ideological stripes to celebrate the city’s central role in achieving the most significant civil rights advance in a generation.
The case began four years ago in San Francisco when Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to have the city issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. City Attorney Dennis Herrera and his legal team built the voluminous legal case that won an improbable victory in a court dominated 6 to 1 by Republican appointees.
"In light of the fundamental nature of the substantive rights embodied in the right to marry and the central importance to an individual’s opportunity to live a happy, meaningful, and satisfying life as a full member of society the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all individuals and couples, without regard to their sexual orientation," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in the majority opinion.
Newsom cut short a trip to Chicago to return home and make calls to the national media and join Herrera’s press conference, where hundreds of couples who got married in San Francisco City Hall were assembled on the City Hall staircase as a backdrop to the jubilant parade of speakers that took the podium.
"What a wonderful, wonderful day," a beaming Herrera told the assembled crowd, adding, "California has taken a tremendous leap forward."
Some speakers (as well as the next day’s coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle) emphasized the potential of the issue to embolden conservatives and the possibility that a November ballot measure could nullify the decision by, as a prepared statement by Rep. Nancy Pelosi put it, "writing discrimination into the state constitution."
But for most San Franciscans, it was a day to celebrate a significant victory. Herrera praised "the courageousness of the California Supreme Court." He also commended Deputy City Attorney Terry Stewart, who argued the case, legal partners such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the eight other California cities that supported San Francisco’s position with amicus briefs and Newsom, who clearly soaked up the adulation and gave a fiery speech that could easily become a campaign commercial in his expected run for governor.
"I can’t express enough how proud I am to be a San Franciscan," Newsom said, later saying of the decision, "It’s about human dignity. It’s about human rights. It’s about time."
Newsom also emphasized that "this day is about real people and their lives."
Among those people, standing on the stairs of City Hall, was Emily Drennen, a current candidate for the Democratic County Central Committee and the District 11 seat on the Board of Supervisors, who was the 326th couple to get married in San Francisco, taking her vows with partner Linda Susan Ulrich.
"When it got nullified, something was taken away from us. It really felt like that," Drennen told the Guardian, adding that she was thrilled and relieved by the ruling. "I was just holding my breath this whole time, expecting the worst but hoping for the best."
Herrera spokesperson Matt Dorsey, who is gay, was similarly tense before the ruling, knowing how much work had gone into it but worried the court might not overcome its ideological predisposition to oppose gay marriage.
"For everyone who worked on this, it was the case of their lives," Dorsey told us. "Politically and legally, there was so much work that this office did that I’m so proud of, and I hope people understand that." *