The Debate over Marriage Recognition

city hall recognition

Read how the City of San Jose voted 17 years ago to recognize marriages of all city employees—not just straight ones—that were certified by other jurisdictions so their spouse could receive full city benefits. 

The council chambers were packed on March 9, 2004, with 103 pro- and anti-marriage residents speaking to the proposal by Mayor Ron Gonzales and Councilmember Ken Yeager. The crowd was overwhelmingly opposed. The religious right had hoped it could change minds by saying the council was acting illegally because gay marriages were not allowed in Calif. They threatened a recall against the Gonzales and Yeager. 

Read an account of the nearly four-hour meeting, as well as hear testimony from Councilmember Yeager. In the end, love won, with an 8-1 vote.

Lighting the Way

By Shawn Maxey

From OutNow, March 2004

On March 9th the San Jose City Council chamber was filled to capacity, as people turned out en masse to debate Item 3.5. If passed, the — resolution, co-authored by Mayor Ron Gonzales and City Councilmember Ken Yeager, would grant equal benefits to city employees and their spouses who had same sex marriages certified in other jurisdictions. What followed hours of impassioned comments by more than a hundred local residents was a historic vote to determine if, for the first time, San Jose would legally recognize same sex marriages.

item 3.5 memorandum
Memorandum for Item 3.5

Many who spoke in favor of the resolution said it was simply a matter of equality.

“The broader issue of gay marriage and rights is one of the key civil rights issues of our time,” said local resident Joe Pampicano. “The question is how marriage is recognized by government. The question is equal protection under the law. Councilmember Yeager and honorable Mayor, by bringing this measure forward you make me proud to be from San Jose today.”

Mark Perry echoed that sentiment.

“Are we, as a nation, going to go forth and deny rights to some of our citizens based on the prejudices of another group of citizens? How can the just thing be immoral? How can teaching ok and intolerance be moral? How are the rights of male and female couples lessened by giving those same rights to a minority class? Just as when African-Americans and the women of this country fought for the rights to vote, we now fight for equality with the rest of America.”

Others, like Rod Stone, stressed the importance of separating the religious definition of marriage from the secular.

“Let the churches keep the word marriage, just as long as my government, which is supposed to practice separation of church and state, grants me the same rights as my fellow taxpayers. My partner is a veteran of the Gulf War. He performed eight years of duty in the Marine Corps and he left highly decorated, only to find out he would be treated as a second class citizen because of his love for me.”

Opponents of Item 3.5 hold signs saying "Keep Marriage Sacred."
Opponents of Item 3.5 in the City Council Chambers

Members of the religious community who spoke were largely divided on the issue, with many voicing their support for the resolution.

Said Mary Parker Eaves, “I came today because | feel it’s important for you to know that many persons of faith, many Christians, stand in support of gay and lesbian rights including marriage, My congregation is one of many that have made an explicit statement that we welcome all. Throughout the Bible, love is the primary value. Our cultural context changes, our scientific knowledge grows—love and compassion supersede it all.”

Amidst the philosophical and religious arguments were more personal accounts of the resolution’s importance.

“My name is Don Burris, a City employee here in San Jose. 100 years ago, in 1901, my grandparents were not allowed to marry because mixed race marriages were not legal. The Baptist minister at their Church married them anyway. My grandparents were together 50 years and raised 17 children. I applaud that minister who stood up for fairness and equality. He could see that love and marriage are things that should be celebrated by all in his congregation. The chief issue is not an issue of morality or Christian values. This is a struggle for civil rights, the right for my spouse and I to be treated equally and fairly, not separately and unequal. I applaud Mayor Gonzales and Councilmember Yeager, for they believe that I, the gay employee here in the city of San Jose, should be treated equally and fairly.”

In addition to the usual religious condemnations and moral arguments cited by those who are against LGBT equality, many who opposed the resolution accused the Mayor and Councilmember Yeager of acting with reckless disregard for
the law. In particular, they charged that Item 3.5 violated Proposition 22, which passed easily in 2000 with a resounding 61% of the vote. Upon the completion of the public comments portion of the hearing, Mayor Gonzales invited City Attorney Rick Doyle to speak to that issue.

“What is before you is a motion where you are not passing on or making a decision on the validity or legality of same
sex marriages. The courts will have the final say on that, and whatever this Council says or does doesn’t impact that court decision. However, as a municipal employer, as an employer of a number of employees, you have the ability to provide benefits to your employees and determine who gets benefits and under what circumstances. It is a question of policy. So you do have the right under California law to decide what benefits you want to provide your employees and under what condition. And as such, you can determine to recognize same-sex marriage certificates that are issued by other jurisdictions.”

ken ron outnow
Ken Yeager and Ron Gonzales recognized in the April 2004 edition of OutNow

As it came time to vote on Item 3.5, Councilmember Yeager framed the resolution in a much larger context.

“I know that the only way really to change the minds of people who don’t believe in what we’re doing is when a loved one comes our to you and is gay, and that makes it a personal issue for you, you will then understand the type of love that those people have and how very important it is to recognize that love. I believe we are on the right path, I believe that San Jose has a long history of nondiscrimination and inclusiveness, and I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting this resolution.”

And join him they did. In the end, Councilmember Chuck Reed, citing the illegality of same sex marriages performed in San Francisco, was the lone dissenting voice on the Council, With a few simple words and the final official vote, Councilmembers Yeager, Chavez, Gregory, LeZotte, Cortese, Chirco, Campos and Mayor Gonzales moved San Jose to the forefront of communities that are leading the fight for LGBT equality.

Mayor Gonzales: “I am going to have to ask for lights on this item. That motion passes with one no vote.”

To watch the full meeting, click here here.