California Attorney General Kamala Harris on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of requesting a state court’s permission to reject a proposed ballot initiative that would make gay sex punishable by death. Harris called the measure “utterly reprehensible.”
The move comes as California’s ballot initiative process — in which any resident can put an issue up for a vote by paying a $200 fee and gathering a certain number of signatures — is called into question. If a proposed measure garners valid signatures totaling at least 5 percent of the number of votes for the governor in the last election, it must be placed on the state ballot.
“This proposal not only threatens public safety, it is patently unconstitutional, utterly reprehensible and has no place in a civil society,” Harris said in a news release. “If the court does not grant this relief, my office will be forced to issue a title and summary for a proposal that seeks to legalize discrimination and vigilantism.”
The ballot initiative, called the Sodomite Suppression Act, calls for people who have sex with members of the same gender to be killed “by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.”
It also calls for a $1 million fine against anyone distributing “sodomistic propaganda,” along with up to 10 years in prison and expulsion from the state.
The initiative was proposed by Matthew McLaughlin, a lawyer in Huntington Beach, California. While such an extreme measure is unlikely to gather the required number of signatures for it to appear on the ballot in 2016, the attorney general’s office worries that it could set a dangerous precedent for the state’s ballot initiative process.
Harris said that unless a judge rules otherwise, the state's laws would give her no choice but to give the measure’s sponsor the go-ahead to try to gather the nearly 366,000 signatures it would need to qualify for the November 2016 ballot.
“Even the public circulation of such an intentionally targeted and divisive measure, as though doing so were some ordinary aspect of the democratic process, would pervert that process in a way that could easily open permanent rifts in the community,” Harris’ office wrote in seeking judicial relief from its duty to prepare the proposal’s official title and summary.
California is one of 21 states where citizens may petition to have laws put on the ballot through the gathering of voter signatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Under California’s initiative process, state officials do not have authority to refuse to administer initiatives they find objectionable, the California Supreme Court has ruled.
The process has been used to pass measures such as the legalization of medical marijuana in 1996 and a constitutional amendment supporting stem cell research in 2004.
Although few of the dozens of measures submitted to the attorney general each year make it onto the ballot, the ease with which residents with pet peeves can gain clearance to circulate their proposals while seeking signatures has prompted calls for reform.
McLaughlin did not respond to a telephone call seeking comment Wednesday and has not spoken publicly about the proposal since he paid $200 to file the ballot language last month. A Democratic state senator, Ricardo Lara, has asked the State Bar of California to investigate whether McLaughlin is fit to practice law.
Harris’ move follows weeks of uproar about the initiative.
“This disgusting, barbaric measure should be stopped in its tracks, and once again Attorney General Harris has demonstrated leadership in standing up for the rights and dignity of LGBT Californians,” Chad Griffin, the president of gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement issued Wednesday. “It is our sincere hope that the Supreme Court of California gives her the authority to prevent it from advancing.”
With wire services