Padilla touts marriage act in SF visit; officiates vow renewal ceremony

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Friday December 2, 2022
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Tessa Chavez, left, and Cyn Wang smile after renewing their vows in a December 2 ceremony officiated by U.S. Senator Alex Padilla at San Francisco City Hall. Photo: Christopher Robledo
Tessa Chavez, left, and Cyn Wang smile after renewing their vows in a December 2 ceremony officiated by U.S. Senator Alex Padilla at San Francisco City Hall. Photo: Christopher Robledo

Wiping away tears from her eyes, Tessa Chavez recited a renewal of her wedding vows to spouse Cyn Wang during a ceremony at San Francisco City Hall December 2 that was officiated by U.S. Senator Alex Padilla.

Padilla, a California Democrat who was just elected to a six-year term in last month's election, was in town to highlight the Senate's final passage November 29 of the Respect for Marriage Act on a bipartisan 61-36 vote. The bill is expected to have a concurrence vote in the House of Representatives December 6, Padilla said at a news conference following the vow renewal ceremony.

President Joe Biden has pledged to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.

Specifically, the Respect for Marriage Act will repeal the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act that was passed in 1996 but had key provisions struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 (Section 3, U.S. v. Windsor) and 2015 (Section 2, Obergefell v. Hodges). Not only does it require federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages nationwide but also mandates states must recognize such unions performed in other states.

Wang told the Bay Area Reporter that she and Chavez have been together for two years. They have a 9-year-old daughter, Sloane. They were honored when asked by Padilla's office if they would take part in the renewal ceremony, she said.

"It's a historic moment for so many couples like us," Wang said, referring to the importance of the Respect for Marriage Act.

Added Chavez, "I'm very excited for the country — and to respect everyone's rights."

During the ceremony, Wang, who serves on the city's entertainment commission, promised to "love, honor, and cherish" Chavez, who also made the same commitment.

Padilla said that he was "honored" to be part of the couple's day. He noted that the women, despite growing up in different cultures, "had much in common."

Seth Brenzel and his husband, Malcolm Gaines, attended the ceremony, as they are friends with Wang and Chavez.

"My husband and I got married here in 2004," Brenzel told the B.A.R., referring to the monthlong "Winter of Love" that took place after then-mayor Gavin Newsom, now the state's governor, ordered city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"Every time I step in City Hall I remember that," Gaines said.

Those marriages were eventually voided by the California Supreme Court, and Brenzel and Gaines said they were married twice more, once in the Green Room at the War Memorial Veterans Building, and then once in a backyard in 2008 just before Proposition 8, the state's same-sex marriage ban, was approved by voters.

News conference

At the news conference held on the steps of City Hall, speakers talked about the importance of marriage equality and California's long road to same-sex marriage that started with the "Winter of Love" in 2004.

After those marriages were voided by the state Supreme Court, lawsuits continued over the matter and, in 2008, the court ruled that Proposition 22, the California Defense of Marriage Act passed by voters in 2000, was unconstitutional. That opened the door for same-sex couples to wed for about five months, until the passage of Prop 8.

More lawsuits followed, culminating in a federal trial in 2010. In August 2010, following the trial, Judge Vaughan Walker, who was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush, ruled that Prop 8 was indeed unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Walker's ruling could go into effect, two years before the nation's highest court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. Walker came out as gay after his ruling and retired from the bench in 2012.

Jennifer Pizer, chief legal officer for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said at Friday's news conference that her organization represented three couples in Hawaii in 1996. There were favorable court rulings but then Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, preventing same-sex marriages from being legal. Pizer condemned the arguments used by opponents that same-sex marriage was dangerous to children.

"It is just untrue," she said.

Ultimately, the legal road to marriage equality led to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

"Every victory has been a hard one," Pizer said. "But the Respect for Marriage Act at long last removes the Defense of Marriage Act."

There is concern, due to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the right to abortion in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in June, that federal rights like same-sex marriage could also face reversal at the high court. That's because Justice Clarence Thomas, one of court's six conservative members, suggested as much in a concurring opinion he wrote in the Dobbs case.

"If the Supreme Court erases the right to marry," the Respect for Marriage Act will help, Pizer said.

Kris Perry also spoke. She and her spouse, Sandra Stier, were the lead plaintiffs in the 2009 federal Prop 8 lawsuit. She said that she was "incredibly moved" by how much public support has grown for same-sex marriage. It was 20% back in 1996, Pizer noted; now it's 71%.

"It was just 18 years ago that mayor Newsom" ordered city officials to issue the marriage licenses," Perry recalled.

"In fact, Sandy and I and our four boys sped across the Bay Bridge," to take advantage of the "Winter of Love," she said.

After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Walker's ruling, Perry and Stier were the first couple married that day at City Hall, in a ceremony officiated by then-state attorney general and now Vice President Kamala Harris.

Tony Hoang, a gay man who's executive director of Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ rights organization, said the Respect for Marriage Act "is a big victory to be celebrated but it won't end discrimination of LGBTQ+ people." He and others called for passage of the federal Equality Act, which was passed by the House and has languished in the Senate. It would need to be reintroduced in the next Congress.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said that lawmakers like Padilla and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who also voted for the Respect for Marriage Act, "represent San Francisco values at their absolute best."

She noted that it wasn't that long ago when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case.

"This legislation," Breed said, referring to the Respect for Marriage Act, "gives any person the right to marry. We're proud here in San Francisco to support this legislation, and I hope that one day it is not needed."

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