Calling it the "civil rights issue of our time," members of the City Council voted 6-0, with Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilmen Pat Burt and Greg Schmid absent, to join a growing coalition of cities in the area that are taking a stand on the issue of same-sex marriage — the subject of two separate cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court last week. One of these cases concerns Proposition 8, a law banning same-sex marriage that California voters approved in November 2008. The other challenges the legality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
Before Monday, Palo Alto has remained on the sideline while other cities in the area showed their support for same-sex marriage by flying rainbow flags, passing resolutions affirming support for marriage equality or joining the litigation challenging Proposition 8. San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica are among the participants in the litigation, as are Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
While Palo Alto hasn't gone as far, council members made it clear this week where they stand on the issue. With little debate and no dissent, they enthusiastically approved a resolution that authorizes City Manager James Keene to fly the rainbow flag at King Plaza in recognition of the city's "overwhelming rejection of Proposition 8" and as a symbol for its support "for the restoration of marriage equality for gays and lesbians in California."
Greg Betts, director of Palo Alto's Community Services Department, addressed the council as a private citizen for the first time in his 30-year career with the city and urged the council to support the proclamation. Betts, who married his partner of 24 years in the fall of 2008, before the passage of Proposition 8, said that to his knowledge, the marriage hadn't caused the break-ups of any other marriages or the breakdown of society.
The rainbow flag, he said, is a sign of diversity and inclusiveness, a way to promote an open and welcoming community.
"The rainbow flag is not a flag of allegiance. It does not represent a constitution or a charter," Betts said. "This flag is merely a symbol."
Faith Bell, owner of Bell's Books, also spoke in support of the resolution and said she would be proud to be in a city that flew the rainbow flag.
Omar Chatty, a San Jose resident who frequently opines on transportation issues, disagreed and argued against flying the rainbow flag. Members of some religions, he argued, could be offended by the city's decision to redefine "marriage," which to them is a union of a man and a woman. He asked the city not to fly the flag until the Supreme Court comes out with a decision.
But the council agreed that it's time to take an official stance on same-sex marriage, particularly given the opinion of Palo Alto residents, 76 percent of whom rejected Proposition 8.
The proposal to fly the flag was initially proposed by Mayor Greg Scharff and agreed upon by Keene.
Scharff called flying the rainbow flag a "very important" action for the city and argued that committed relationships — gay or straight — make the community stronger.
"I see no possible argument why people shouldn't be allowed to marry whomever they wish," Scharff said.
Councilwoman Karen Holman addressed the criticism from residents that the council shouldn't meddle in this national issue. She noted that the council is both representing the voters and showing support for those members of Palo Alto's youth community who may be struggling with their identity.
Her colleagues agreed. Councilwoman Gail Price said she was "very pleased" with the action. Councilman Larry Klein said he was "very proud" of his colleagues. And Councilman Marc Berman agreed with Scharff and Councilwoman Liz Kniss about same-sex marriage being the "civil-rights issue of our time."
"If you were to look back 50 years to Brown vs. the Board of Education — every city probably wishes it had put out a resolution about the fact that 'separate but equal' is not equal," Berman said.