Newsom defends licenses

    A little more than a year after he came into the national spotlight by granting more than 4,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom told UCSD students and staff in a campus address on April 11 that he had no regrets about his actions. The talk, sponsored by the DeWitt Higgs Memorial Lecture series, was part of a larger panel discussion on the topic.

    Travis Ball
    Power speech:

    Though the state’s Supreme Court later struck down the licenses, Newsom said the California constitution justified his actions by proclaiming all state citizens to be equal under law.

    Since then, the political battles at both the state and federal levels over gay marriage have rapidly intensified. Several states across the country amended their constitutions last year to include prohibitions against gay marriage, and President George W. Bush has backed a similar amendment to the federal Constitution.

    “Throughout American history, discrimination has been enforced by law and upheld by the courts,” Newsom said. “This [issue] is about the dignity of two people who want to express their devoted love to each other. I have more resolve than ever that what we did was right. I took an oath to bear true faith and allegiance to the constitutions of California and the United States … and the Constitution was created to protect the minority against the whims of the majority.”

    Newsom sought to inform audience members of the current split of public opinion, as well as inspire them to take action.

    “This issue should not be isolated to 47 square miles in the city by the bay,” Newsom said in an interview. “We need to discuss fundamental principles that transcend issues of gender. As a Democrat and human being, I believe people deserve equal protection under law.”

    University of San Diego School of Law Professor Steven D. Smith, a member of the panel, was critical of Newsom’s actions.

    “It’s a threat to peace and continuity,” Smith said. “I think it is clear the mayor did act outside of his authority and contrary to the law.”

    Smith said that while he admired the mayor’s initiative to raise awareness about the issue, he found trouble with the “sustained portrayal of a public given to demagoguery and justice.”

    While liberals have traditionally been associated with supporting gay-rights issues, Newsom was quick to denounce the actions of his own Democratic Party.

    “I’ve traditionally been proud of our party because we have always stood on principle … but now we are abandoning principle for political expedience,” Newsom said.

    The mayor compared the issue to other examples of legalized segregation and inequality in American history. He emphasized various cases in which women were not allowed to vote and interracial marriages were prohibited, as well as the famous 1857 Dred Scott case. At the time, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that all blacks were not and could never become citizens.

    Newsom also referred to letters written by Martin Luther King, Jr. while imprisoned in a Birmingham, Ala., jail, which debunked critics who said that King was pursuing changes too quickly.

    “Some say I’ve gone too fast, but ‘wait’ almost always means never,” Newsom said. “I think this is the last great civil rights struggle in our lifetime. Civil unions are separate and unequal … please do not be fooled by those who talk about the tradition of marriage.”

    Newsom acknowledged that his viewpoint was not the majority one in America, saying he hopes that those who are passionate about the cause will continue to support the struggle.

    “This is just the beginning of a long process,” he said. “We have faced and will continue to face tremendous setbacks. … I know I’m a minority in California, but we all need to think more broadly of consequences of the status quo.”

    Following Newsom’s speech, a panel of local legal scholars discussed the mayor’s actions.

    “The importance of what Newsom did cannot be minimized,” California Western School of Law Professor Barbara J. Cox said. “He put the money and resources of San Francisco behind a battle of equality. We need the members of the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community] as well as non-gay allies to take on positions similar to Newsom’s.”

    UCSD Professor of Sociology John Evans said that while Newsom and others are active in pursuing change, they must remember not to alienate potential allies to see results.

    “I must make the argument that what the public thinks cannot be ignored,” Evans said. “Keep in mind you have to bring along people who don’t agree with you in some way or another. The public is increasingly consensual and becoming more liberal at the same time. This is not a culture war for the average person, but for party elites who are elected.”

    Smith said all sides needed to moderate their rhetoric in the debate.

    “We must try and understand the different views in play without accusing those differing with us of hatred,” Smith said. “For all its flaws, this is supposed to be government by the people for the people.”

    Readers can contact Shannon Eliot at [email protected].

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