SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It's only 14 words long, but in the battle for marriage in the United States, it will make an enormous difference.

California voters overwhelmingly agreed March 7 to this definition of marriage: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

The 61% to 39% vote means that marriage in California will continue to be a contract that only a man and a woman can enter. Despite a pitched battle against Proposition 22 — the California Defense of Marriage Act — all California counties voted to pass the measure, except for five in the San Francisco Bay area. About 70% of Hispanics supported the measure, reported CNN.

“Thirty-one states have already passed protection of marriage acts,” said Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California bishops’ lobbying wing in Sacramento, the state's capital. “California needed to join that list of states.”

Janet Parshall, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., said California's victory would have an enormous impact on marriage debate around the country.

“If the liberal states of Hawaii, Alaska and now California can [honor marriage's definition], then the 19 other states without statutory protection for marriage can and must do it, too,” she said in a written statement.

The bishops’ California Catholic Conference donated more than $350,000 to the “Yes on Proposition 22” campaign. It also issued bulletin announcements and fliers to each parish in the state. “The bishops feel strongly that it is in the best interests of the people of California to protect the definition of marriage,” explained Dolejsi.

The effort was ecumenical, Parshall added.

“As we have seen in California, the defense of marriage is a cause that transcends most others, joining together a vast array of people from many different faiths,” Parshall said. “Mormons, Muslims, evangelicals, Catholics, and others may disagree on religion, but all can agree that the heart of family life is marriage, the foundation of our civilization.”

A Federal Debate

The flurry of states which have adopted protection of marriage acts came on the heels of a 1996 federal law which defined marriage as being between a man and woman only for the purposes of the federal tax code, immigration, Social Security and other federal services. The law, however, invited each state to set its own definition of marriage.

The 14-word-long definition of marriage Californians read on their ballots was “pretty simple,” said Dolejsi.

So was the message of the campaign to pass it.

“We've presented a strong, aggressive and positive campaign,” Dolejsi added. “But the other side wanted to make it complicated, claiming it's about discrimination, bigotry and scapegoating.”

Indeed, the issue has been hotly contested in California, as in Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont, by homosexual activist groups who claim that any reservation of marriage to a man and a woman is discriminatory. Opponents claim further that it would cause unnecessary government interference into an individual's private life and deny hospital visitation rights to homosexual partners.

California Gov. Gray Davis, a Catholic, issued a statement against the Defense of Marriage Act calling it a “wedge-issue … that divides one Californian from another and makes scapegoats of certain groups of our citizens.” He referred to Proposition 22 as an “emotionally charged issue [which] serves mainly to stir up prejudices and hostility.”

State Sen. Bill Campbell, also a Catholic, disagreed.

“We have to be very careful how we honor marriage in this state so that we don't end up honoring something we don't want to,” he contended. “The Catholic Church has always taught the sanctity of marriage, the importance of a man and wife staying together throughout their marriage, and that husband and wife both be there to help train and develop their children in the love of God.”

The purpose of marriage throughout history has been the propagation of children, he said, and it is “only natural that a man and woman should be the ones in the family unit to raise and nurture the children.”

Part of a Bigger Issue

Matthew Daniels, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Alliance For Marriage, predicted, “The debate our society is now entering over marriage will be as traumatic and deeply divisive as earlier debates over abortion and slavery.”

Daniels’ group is a national organization which is building an interfaith alliance to help further defend marriage. “The outcome of this debate will have political, social and moral ripple effects that will last for generations,” he maintained.

Proponents of same-sex marriage vowed to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act with an amendment to the state Constitution.

The proposed amendment would read: “Two people of the same sex may lawfully marry in California,” and will be on the November ballot if the qualifying 1 million signatures are collected by April 20.

“Prop 22 was a wake-up call, especially to the gay and lesbian community,” said Tom Henning, a spokesman for Californians for Same-Sex Marriage. “Many people thought it would-n't pass. But we have a chance to undo it in the November election.”

Emphasizing that the fight for a same-sex marriage ballot initiative will continue even if the April 20 deadline is not met, Henning added, “The time for this initiative has come. If we don't make it this time, we'll be back with a new campaign.”

Daniels said that proponents of same-sex unions are tenacious, planning to eventually win a string of court battles claiming civil-rights discrimination against states which refuse to recognize a same-sex, state-approved “marriage” from another state. The hope of these homosexual activists, he said, is that civil recognition of same-sex “marriages” ultimately becomes mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark case that parallels the dynamics of Roe v. Wade years ago.

“One of the greatest ironies,” observed Daniels, “is that homosexual activists, who are overwhelmingly white, have borrowed freely from the language and symbolism of the civil rights movement in order to provide a moral cover for their socially destructive agenda ….

“[Yet] the belief that marriage and the family involve the union of male and female cuts across all race, class, ethnic, religious and cultural lines. … It is the single most multicultural social institution known to mankind.”

Other states considering Defense of Marriage Acts this year include Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Vermont and West Virginia.

“In light of the size of California,” said Daniels, “the vote on Proposition 22 in March has been carefully watched as a bellwether of future events in the emerging debate over marriage in America.”

Karen Walker is based in San Juan Capistrano, California.