California’s top court overturns gay marriage ban |

California’s top court overturns gay marriage ban

Lisa Leff / The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO – When San Francisco’s mayor quietly directed his staff to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples four years ago, the first couple invited to exchange vows were two women who had been partners in life, love and lesbian politics for more than half a century.

So after California’s highest court on Thursday swept away decades of tradition and legalized gay marriage, Mayor Gavin Newsom asked Phyllis Lyon, 84, and Del Martin, 87, the godmothers of the gay rights movement, if they wanted to go first again.

“I said, ‘Sure,’ ” said Lyon, who heard of the landmark decision on the radio and rushed across the house to embrace her partner of 55 years. “We didn’t jump, but we were really happy. This is a big step forward.”

In a 4-3 ruling, the state Supreme Court said that tying marriage to a couple’s sexual orientation was an unconstitutional civil rights violation, paving the way for same-sex marriages in the nation’s most populous state in as little as a month.

Couples gathering in front of the court greeted the decision with tears, hugs, kisses and at least one on-the-spot proposal. Shannon Minter, who argued the case on behalf of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said same-sex marriage advocates could not have hoped for a more favorable ruling from the Republican-dominated court.

“It’s a total victory,” Minter said.

But the celebration could be short-lived. Religious and social conservatives are pressing to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would undo the court’s ruling. They predicted the majority opinion would motivate voters to approve the proposed gay marriage ban.

“What an outrage,” said James Dobson, chairman of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, which has spent tens of thousands of dollars to qualify the measure.

“It will be up to the people of California to preserve traditional marriage by passing a constitutional amendment. … Only then can they protect themselves from this latest example of judicial tyranny.”

The ruling struck down state laws against same-sex marriage and said domestic partnerships that provide many of the rights and benefits of matrimony are not enough.

“Retaining the designation of marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples may well have the effect of perpetrating a more general premise – now emphatically rejected by this state – that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respect ‘second-class citizens,’ ” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the majority.

Massachusetts is the only other state to legalize gay marriage, something it did in 2004.

The California ruling is considered monumental by virtue of the state’s size – 38 million out of a U.S. population of 302 million. The state often has played a historic role as the vanguard of many social and cultural changes that have swept the country since World War II.

California has an estimated 108,734 same-sex households, according to 2006 U.S. Census figures.

“It’s about human dignity. It’s about human rights. It’s about time in California,” Newsom told a roaring crowd at City Hall while pumping his fist in the air. “As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. It’s inevitable. This door’s wide open now. It’s going to happen, whether you like it or not.”

Unlike Massachusetts, California has no residency requirement for obtaining a marriage license, meaning gays from around the country are likely to flock to the state to be wed, said Jennifer Pizer, a gay-rights attorney who worked on the case.

Massachusetts does allow people from out of state to get married there if they come from states where their unions would be legally recognized. Thursday’s ruling makes it possible for California residents to get married in Massachusetts, Pizer said.

The ultimate reach of the ruling could be limited, however, since most states do not recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Nor does the federal government.

The conservative Alliance Defense Fund said it would ask the justices for a stay of the decision until after the fall election. The group hopes to add California to the list of 26 states that have approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

“We’re obviously very disappointed in the decision. The remedy is a constitutional amendment,” said Glen Lavy, senior counsel for the organization.

Opponents of gay marriage could also ask the high court to reconsider. If the court rejects such a request, same-sex couples could start getting married in 30 days, the time it typically takes for the justices’ opinions to become final.

The justices said they would direct state officials “to take all actions necessary to effectuate our ruling,” including requiring county marriage clerks to carry out their duties “in a manner consistent with the decision of this court.”

By the afternoon, gay and lesbian couples had already started lining up at San Francisco City Hall to make appointments to get marriage licenses. The county clerk’s office in Los Angeles issued a statement saying it was awaiting legal analysis of the ruling and a timeline for implementation.

The case was set in motion in 2004 when Newsom threw City Hall open to gay couples to get married in a calculated challenge to California law. More than 4,000 gay couples wed before the Supreme Court put a halt to the practice after a month and voided the unions.

Two dozen gay couples sued, along with the city and two gay rights organizations.

Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose office argued to uphold the ban, said Brown will “work with the governor and other state agencies to implement the ruling.”

Thursday’s ruling could alter the dynamics of the presidential race and state and congressional contests in California and beyond if a backlash draws conservatives to the polls in large numbers.

A spokesman for Republican John McCain, who opposes gay marriage, said the Arizona senator “doesn’t believe judges should be making these decisions.” The campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton said they believe that the issue of marriage should be left to the states.

Ten states now offer some form of legal recognition to same-sex couples – in most cases, domestic partnerships or civil unions.

In the past few years, the courts in New York, Maryland and Washington state have refused to allow gay marriage, and New Jersey’s highest court gave the state lawmakers the option of establishing civil unions as an alternative to marriage.

California already offers same-sex couples who register as domestic partners many of the legal rights and responsibilities afforded to married couples, including the right to divorce and to sue for child support.

Outside the San Francisco courthouse, gay marriage supporters cried and cheered as news spread of the decision. Jeanie Rizzo, one of the plaintiffs, called Pali Cooper, her partner of 19 years, via cell phone and asked, “Pali, will you marry me?”

Citing a 1948 California Supreme Court decision that overturned a ban on interracial marriages, the justices struck down the state’s 1977 one-man, one-woman marriage law and a similar voter-approved law that passed with 61 percent in 2000.

The chief justice was joined by Justices Joyce Kennard and Kathryn Werdegar, all three of whom were appointed by Republican governors, and Justice Carlos Moreno, the only member of the court appointed by a Democrat.

In a dissent, Justice Marvin Baxter agreed with many arguments of the majority but said that the court overstepped its authority and that changes to marriage laws should be decided by the voters. Justices Ming Chin and Carol Corrigan also dissented.

California’s secretary of state is expected to rule by the end of June whether the sponsors gathered enough signatures to put the gay-marriage amendment on the ballot.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has twice vetoed legislation that would have granted marriage to same-sex couples. He said in a statement that he respected the court’s decision and “will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn this state Supreme Court ruling.”

Lyon, who along with Martin and six other women co-founded the nation’s first lesbian rights organization in 1955, said that while she never expected to be able to get married in her lifetime, she was looking forward to seeing how the political drama plays out.

“At this point, we are sticking around ’til November, come hell or high water,” she said.

Associated Press writers Terence Chea, Jason Dearen, Juliana Barbassa and Evelyn Nieves in San Francisco, Liz Sidoti in Washington and Solvej Schou and Jacob Adelman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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