Calif. Gov. Urged to Veto Bill 'Strengthening' Religious Freedom

An openly gay state senator is urging California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto a bill seeks to define the union between a man and a woman as a "civil marriage" rather than a marriage.

Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) sent a letter to the governor requesting his veto Monday, nearly two weeks after the California Assembly passed The Civil Marriage Religious Freedom Act and five days after the Senate approved the bill in a 22-11 concurrence vote.

Under the legislation, no priest, minister, rabbi, or authorized person of any religious denomination would be required to solemnize a marriage that is contrary to the tenets of their faith. The bill also states that any refusal to solemnize a marriage under that provision shall not affect the tax exempt status of any entity.

According to the bill's author, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the legislation "simply affirms that California is a diverse state, and that we can all co-exist and make space for each others' beliefs without compromising the tenets of any religious group or individual."

"With the recent federal court ruling, we know that marriage for same-sex couples in California is on the horizon," said the state's first openly gay senator, referring to the ruling earlier this month that found California's one-man-one-woman marriage definition unconstitutional.

"Under the Civil Marriage Religious Freedom Act, churches and clergy members who fear their religious views are threatened by marriage equality will have clear and solid protections under state law," he added following the Assembly's 46-25 vote for the bill on Aug. 19.

While Ashburn stated in his letter to the governor that he had no disagreement with the part of the legislation dealing with religious freedom, the Republican senator expressed disapproval over the bill's attempt to "redefine" marriage by inserting the word "civil" before the word "marriage" throughout state statue.

To Ashburn, such wording would create "a new class of marriages."

"At the very time that the Courts are deciding equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, this measure complicates the issue by creating 'second class' marriages for gay people," the senator argued.

"[T]his bill will unnecessarily complicate state law on the definition of marriage," he added.

Presently, the issue of gay marriage awaiting the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has scheduled oral arguments for the week of Dec. 6. On Aug. 16, the appeals court granted the request of traditional marriage proponents to stay Judge Vaughn Walker's decision to strike down California's Proposition 8 while it considers the case.

Although he had maintained a firmly anti-gay-rights voting record as a senator, Ashburn announced this past March that he is gay after he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving while operating a State of California owned vehicle. Sources at the time said he was leaving a Sacramento gay nightclub.

Since his confession, Ashburn has gradually changed much of his rhetoric and stance regarding LGBT policy – his recent letter to the governor serving as a prime example.

In concluding, Ashburn said he seeks "full, equal marriage rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation."

"SB 906 is clearly less than full marriage equality and therefore, I respectfully ask for your veto," he stated.

With the battle over Prop. 8 still ongoing, the relevance of SB 906 is uncertain.

Notably, however, as Ashburn pointed out, existing state law and the United States Constitution already provide the protections for ministers who wish not to perform a marriage that is contrary to their faith.

But SB 906 supporters say the legislation "clarifies" the protections. Sponsoring the bill are Equality California and California Council of Churches IMPACT.