Prop 8: The New Scopes Monkey Trial?

Dan Walters’ January 31st editorial in the Sacramento Bee (“California gay marriages may hinge on one man”) about the ongoing Proposition 8 trial explains how this is quickly becoming more of a “sociological and philosophical debate than a traditional evidentiary hearing.” Living in San Francisco, it is hard to avoid the daily updates about arguments both for and against the legalization of gay marriage. Walters argues that in the end, presenting this controversial topic in a federal trial means leaving a big decision up to one judge’s (Justice Anthony Kennedy) personal judgment.

I have long been interested in the legal process, and that fine line between moral or sociological opinion and the objective interpretation of the law. Just how do judges protect themselves, as well as the plaintiffs and the general public, from their own private biases? Surely, these concerns are paramount in any trial, but the cultural significance of Proposition 8 seems to raise the stakes. Regardless of how Kennedy rules, the justice will set a precedent in terms of our societal definition of marriage.

Walters worries that Kennedy’s conservative background might preclude him from hearing both sides objectively, and so do I. I’d like to raise children in a world where such personal matters as sexual orientation or who someone chooses to marry are not subjects of public debate. It’d be great if the result of all this media hype and heartbreaking personal testimonies is simply a way to honor a transition from one policy to another, and nothing else. I’d like, in five or ten years’ time, to see the Prop 8 trial as my generation’s cousin to the Scopes Monkey Trial or the Civil Rights Act. It is both amazing and terrifying to realize that American culture might very well be on the cusp of a paradigm shift, and one ruling is what stands between a dated ballot measure and a cultural revolution. Well, one ruling, which depends entirely on one justice, a few lawyers, dozens of testimonials, petitions, and protests on both sides—but ultimately, it all comes down to how well they convince Justice Kennedy.

Why is this interesting? This is interesting because this summer, the first of my close childhood friends is getting “married”—to her girlfriend. Note the quotation marks. This is interesting because gays and lesbians have already won and lost the opportunity to marry in California—twice—and marriage as an institution hasn’t failed. This is interesting because, given enough time, granting civil liberties to gays and lesbians will affect us all: gay, straight, man, woman, old, young, liberal, conservative. Statistically speaking, we’ll all have a sister or a brother or an uncle or an aunt or a friend or a mentor or a neighbor who will be directly affected by this ruling, if we can’t identify them already.

I am excited to live n an age where topics that were considered “taboo” for many years are now being paid the attention they deserve; I just hope that the result is positive change.