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Anti-Gay Marriage Legal "Ministry" Wants to Represent CA County in Prop 8 Trial

In December, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors decided to throw its hat in the ring as a defendant in.
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During the November 2008 election, two-thirds of the voters in a sparsely populated desert county east of San Diego decided in favor of Proposition 8.

A year later, as the constitutional amendment was being challenged in court, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors decided to throw its hat in the ring as a defendant in Perry vs. Schwarzenegger. The 3-2 decision was made in closed session on Dec. 15, and earned the scrutiny of the San Diego ACLU, which later found the board had not broken any procedural rules.

To represent the county in its long-distance defense of Prop. 8, the county turned to Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a Murrieta, Calif. nonprofit law firm that calls itself a "ministry" and takes on cases that address religious liberty.

Advocates for Faith and Freedom is working pro bono, using a combination of private donations and volunteer hours to attempt a defense of Prop. 8 in a case with potentially far-reaching consequences.

Whether or not the Advocates' petition to intervene is accepted by the court in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the relationship between the county, the religious advocacy group and one of the most highly-charged issues in the country illustrates the wide-reaching implications of the gay marriage debate.

"If this really does proceed as we expect, this has the potential to be as precedential as, say, Roe v. Wade, in terms of its effects on the society and ... legal change," said Benjamin C. Rosenbaum, one of the four lawyers who work at the Christian nonprofit group in Murrieta, about 30 miles south of Riverside. "It's definitely a big one."

Imperial County is a sprawling stretch of desert bordered by Mexico to the south, Arizona to the east and San Diego County to the west. Encompassing 4,200 square miles, the hot and dry southeast corner of California is marked by the Salton Sea and has a sparse 34 residents per square mile--one-sixth the state average of 217 people per square mile. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 90 percent of the county's growing population is white.

Former county resident Fernando Lopez, 28, said he experienced discrimination on a regular basis as a gay teenager growing up in Brawley near the middle of the county.

"High school was kind of the peak of harassment," said Lopez. "I had rocks thrown at me, people tried to run me down in their cars, (they were) yelling at me in the hallways, calling me gay slurs."

Lopez said he wasn't surprised that a majority of Imperial County residents voted in favor of Prop. 8, but he was offended when the county government turned to Advocates For Faith and Freedom.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit group is waiting to hear from the judge in Perry v. Schwarzenegger. If the Advocates are allowed to intervene on behalf of Imperial County, their involvement in the case is likely to focus on the appeal that most observers expect to follow the trial court's ruling.

The three county supervisors who voted in closed session to seek involvement in the Prop. 8 trial have not said what motivated their decision, but Rosenbaum said the vote represented the desire to protect the wishes of a majority of county residents.

"The city and the county of San Francisco have already been granted intervention in an effort to overturn Proposition 8," said Rosenbaum. "In the same way, the supervisors of Imperial are representing their electorate, to ensure that the will of their people is properly represented in the court."

Kevin Keenan, legal director for the San Diego branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that he was puzzled about Imperial County's desire to get involved.

"I think it's unusual that they intervened when they didn't need to," said Keenan, pointing out that various groups on both sides of the case have already interjected in the trial.

He said it's fairly common for governmental entities to get involved in lawsuits, but the ACLU approached the Imperial County Board of Supervisors after it appeared the decision to intervene had been made without public knowledge: "What we objected to was, this was done secretly, without meaningful public comment," said Keenan.

While the ACLU found no wrongdoing in the Board of Supervisors' actions, Keenan said, "This was a divisive, unnecessary move."

Lopez, who said he experienced widespread harassment in Imperial County, has since moved to San Diego and now serves as field director for a gay marriage advocacy group called Marriage Equality USA. But he returned to Imperial County in December to speak out against the Board of Supervisors' decision to intervene in the Prop. 8 trial.

During that Dec. 22 meeting, two dozen people spoke to the board, some praising its decision and some voicing disappointment. Lopez was among those who asked the board to reconsider its attempted involvement in the Prop. 8 case, saying, "I left El Centro because of the discrimination I faced."

Earlier this month, he said his feelings hadn't changed.

"I think that the county Board of Supervisors has other issues they could be focusing on that ... are more important to the people of Imperial County than the issue of same-sex marriage," he said. "I'm hoping they stay out of it and just remain on the outside of this case, which doesn't really have anything to do with the business of running the county."

But for those who see faith and public involvement as inseparable and necessary values, Imperial County has every reason to be heard.

"I think any undertaking by an elected official to ensure that the vote of their constituency is upheld in court should be applauded," said Rosenbaum. "The vote and the will of the people should be upheld and honored. Our side didn't choose to try and tear down the will of the people in court. The other side chose this battleground, as it were, to try and change things. We're just showing up to ensure that the voters' will is represented."

Tom Pfingsten is a freelance journalist and graduate student in Specialized Journalism at the University of Southern California.