By Thomas D. Elias
"There are no acceptable prejudices in the 21st Century," Hillary Clinton, the New York senator and former First Lady, asserted when she conceded her party's nomination to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in a mid-June speech.
Well, maybe. But it won't be certain whether the senator's rhetoric was based in any reality until the results are in on Proposition 8, the November ballot initiative aiming to overturn last spring's state Supreme Court decision and once again ban same-sex marriages in the state.
For if there's one thing that Proposition 8 definitely represents, it is prejudice. No one has proven that giving full marriage rights to same-sex couples in any way diminishes or lessens the rights and privileges of more conventional married couples. No one has shown the least evidence that gay marriages harm anyone. Given the chance to list ways in which same sex unions do harm, the campaign for Proposition 8 could not name one.
Yet, an initiative with identical wording to Proposition 8 passed as Proposition 22 in March 2000 by a wide 61-39 percent margin. Because that measure merely changed legal statutes and not the California Constitution, the state's top judges were able to overturn it. The new proposition intends to preclude anything like that this time by inserting its language into the state Constitution.
Here's what it says: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."
The fact that the language and goal of the current measure is identical to what passed eight years ago makes this a true test of social change in California. For sure, if Proposition 8 loses, it will be a sign of a major swing in the public's view of gay people. In a way, it's also a test of the accuracy of polls taken in California.
Major polls taken just a few days apart were divided on the issue this summer, when the Los Angeles Times Poll found 54 percent of likely California voters rejecting the idea of gay marriage and backing Proposition 8, while the Field Poll found that 51 percent opposed the measure and favored legal same-sex unions. Both surveys included only registered voters.
Because the Times poll was done a few days before Field's, it's possible the difference is due to some feeling of public acceptance that took a couple of months to sink in after the court decision.
Speculated Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll; "There's a certain validation when the state Supreme Court makes a ruling that you can't discriminate when it comes to marriage. That may have been enough to move some people who were on the fence about same-sex marriage."
It's also possible there's a "Bradley factor" at work here. That refers to survey respondents lying to pollsters, as happened in 1982, when every poll showed the African American Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley winning the governor's office handily, but the final vote made him a loser.
Despite their differences, if the final vote determines either of these surveys was anywhere near accurate, it will be certain that public perceptions of gays have changed considerably. For neither survey showed opposition to gay marriage anywhere near the 61 percent level reflected in the 2000 vote.
Giving some hint of what may come in the campaign is one already documentable change: Back in 1999, as the campaign for Proposition 22 mounted, the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints became one of its leading backers, urging its faithful to contribute to a campaign kitty that eventually topped $10 million. There were no protests within the church against that stance.
The LDS church is again behind the proposal to ban gay marriage, with its prophet Thomas Monson calling on members to "do all you can…by donating of your means and time" to support the new proposition. With an estimated California membership of more than 1 million persons, that's important. But so is the dissent within the church.
One former professor at the church-run Brigham Young University circulated a letter saying people do not choose their sexual orientation and that it is "grossly unfair" to deny opportunity to gays.
Other individual church members are vocally opposing their prophet's call. That's a big contrast to the last time around, when there was no public dissent at all from avowed church members.
The bottom line: Every indication is that plenty has changed over eight years in the public's view of homosexuality and same sex marriages. But with the polls disagreeing, it's difficult to know whether some biases are still acceptable or whether the documentable changes will be enough to reverse the previous outcome.