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  • Sasha Issenberg

March 7, 2000: California voters pass gay-marriage ban

ON THIS DAY IN 2000…


California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 22, becoming the third state to ban same-sex marriage by a popular vote.


Assemblyman William J. “Pete” Knight, a world-record-holding Air Force test pilot before entering Republican politics, had been fighting since 1996 to add a provision to the state’s family-law code establishing that California would recognize only marriages between one mand and one woman. (An earlier 1977 law had specified that only opposite-sex couples could wed in the state, but said nothing about recognition of same-sex couples legally married elsewhere.) The bill failed to pass the Assembly that year, and when the next year Knight joined the state senate he took his quest to the upper chamber. With Democrats controlling both chambers of the legislature, Knight’s bill failed to move forward there, either.


In 1999, Knight changed his legal and political strategy, aiming to put a broader marriage definition before the state’s voters. In November 1998, Catholic and Mormon leaders who had succeeded in enacting a marriage ban in Hawaii via that state’s referendum process, and latched onto California as the place they would go next. (Alaska voters passed a similar ban in November 1998.) They collected signatures to place the California Protection of Marriage Initiative on the March 2000 ballot, when Californians would select presidential nominees in Democratic and Republican primaries. It would add a single sentence to the family code: “'Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”


Formally labeled Proposition 22, the ballot question was widely known as the Knight Initiative even as his its high-profile opponent tried to make himself scarce. Knight could not avoid being the focal point of the issue campaign — two of the top committees incorporated as Yes on Knight and No on Knight — especially after it became public that he had raised two gay sons, one of whom went public about differences within the family. “I believe, based on my experience, that his is a blind, uncaring, uninformed, knee-jerk reaction to a subject about which he knows nothing and wants to know nothing, but which serves his political career,” David Knight wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “How can I say this? For one thing, he has never discussed my homosexuality with me, and I know that he never discussed the issue with his gay brother, who died of AIDS three years ago.”


Polling always showed a safe path to passage for Proposition 22, and the contest never really narrowed, as backers spent nearly twice much as opponents over the course of the campaign. The initiative passed with over 61 percent of the vote, failing to carry a majority in only a handful of Bay Area counties

Knight died in May 2004, less than three months after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples in clear defiance of the language of Knight’s initiative. But that act led to a challenge to the underlying constitutionality of Proposition 22, which the California Supreme Court struck down in the summer of 2008 as violating constitutional guarantees to equal protection and the fundamental right to marry. That left gay-marriage opponents in California, including Knight’s old Catholic and Mormon allies, with no choice but to try to write his one-sentence initiative into the state constitution.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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