During the 2008 election that swept Barack Obama to power, Californians were also asked in a state referendum to vote to ban gay marriage.
A quirk of American politics, if enough public support for proposed legislation can be raised, a “proposition” can be put to voters at the ballot box.
Proposals can range from legalising marijuana to immigration issues to Proposition 8.
Last Wednesday Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker overturned the 1998 vote, which was challenged on the basis that it violated civil rights under the US Constitution.
Turning convention on its head, the case supporting gay marriage was led by Ted Olson, a former Solicitor General of the United States who argued for George W. Bush against Al Gore during the 2000 Election that was decided in court.
There’s no more fiery debating point in the US than interpretation of its Constitution and what the country’s founding fathers intended back in 1787.
The right of gay couples to marry also produces polarised opinion with well-organised church groups and usually conservative political bodies mobilising to counter supporters.
Judge Walker was not ambiguous in his ruling on the high-profile California case.
“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license,” he wrote. “Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.”
“Race restrictions on marital partners were once common in most states but are now seen as archaic, shameful or even bizarre,” he added. “Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.”
Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia. Civil unions are permitted in New Jersey.
The ruling has some relevance to the current election in Australia – if only for limited options available to Australian gay couples who want to marry.
Australia often boasts of its egalitarian qualities but Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government is opposed to the gay marriage.
Here’s a video that suggests Gillard is pandering to religious groups with her opinion. (Warning – explicit language!)
With a hint of surrealism, Senator Penny Wong, the country’s first openly gay Cabinet Minister, strongly supports Gillard’s view claiming a “cultural, religious, historical view around that which we have to respect.”
There’s little to split with Tony Abbot, Leader of the Opposition, who claimed, “I guess I’m old fashioned, in that a marriage is between a man and a woman,”
But back in California, last week’s victory is not yet seen as a complete victory but an important legal step that will see the issue eventually before the US Supreme Court.
Not everyone is happy, of course.
“It’s as if we have absolutely no say in what is going on all around us,” said conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, no doubt with no irony intended. “Decisions are being made for us, in lieu of us and imposed on us.”