SAN FRANCISCO – The California Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage Thursday in a broadly worded decision that would invalidate virtually any law that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation.
The 4-3 ruling declared that the state constitution protects a fundamental “right to marry” that applies equally to same-sex couples. It tossed a highly emotional issue into the election year while opening the way for tens of thousands of gay people to wed in California, starting as early as mid-June.
The majority opinion, by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, declared that any law that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation will from this point on be constitutionally suspect in California in the same way as laws that discriminate by race or gender, making the state’s Supreme Court the first in the nation to adopt such a stringent standard.
The decision was a bold surprise from a moderately conservative, Republican-dominated court that legal scholars have long dubbed “cautious,” and experts said it was likely to influence other courts around the country.
But the scope of the court’s decision could be thrown into question by an initiative already heading toward the November ballot. The initiative would amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex unions.
The campaign over that measure began within minutes of the decision. The state’s Catholic bishops and other opponents of gay marriage denounced the court’s ruling. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement saying he respects the decision and “will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn” it.
The ruling was greeted with cheering and whooping when it was released at the Supreme Court’s headquarters Thursday morning. About 100 people lined up outside to purchase a copy of the decision for $10 a piece. Some people bought 10 to 15 copies, calling it a historic document. One man said he planned to give them out as Christmas presents.
Gay groups planned celebrations up and down the state.
“I can finally say I will be able to marry Jon, the man that I love,” said Stuart Gaffney, one of the plaintiffs in the case, referring to his partner of 21 years, Jon Lewis. “Today is the happiest and most romantic day of our lives.”
Conservative and religious-affiliated groups denounced the decision and pledged to bring enough voters to the polls in November to overturn it. Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, called the decision “outrageous” and “nonsense.”
“No matter how you stretch California’s constitution, you cannot find anywhere in its text, its history, or tradition that now, after so many years, it magically protects what most societies condemn,” Staver said.
The decision came after Supreme Courts in New York, Washington and New Jersey refused to extend marriage rights to gay couples. Only Massachusetts’ top court has ruled in favor of permitting gays to wed.
The court’s ruling repeatedly invoked the words “respect and dignity” and framed the marriage question as one that deeply affected not just couples, but also their children. California has more than 100,000 households headed by gay couples, about a quarter with children, according to 2000 Census data.
“Our state now recognizes that an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual’s sexual orientation,” George wrote for the majority. “An individual’s sexual orientation – like a person’s race or gender – does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights,” he continued.
Many gay Californians said that even the state’s broadly worded domestic partnership law provided only a second-class substitute for marriage. The court agreed.
The decision takes effect in 30 days. Gay couples would then be permitted to marry in California, even if they do not live in the state, gay rights lawyers said. Under federal law, however, other states would not have to recognize those marriages as valid. And same-sex couples would remain ineligible for certain federal benefits, including Social Security benefits for spouses and joint filing for income taxes.
Lawyers on both sides of the debate said they were uncertain how a victory for the proposed November initiative – which both sides predict will qualify for the ballot – would affect gay couples who marry during the next several months.
The road to Thursday’s ruling began with San Francisco’s highly publicized same-sex weddings, which in 2004 helped spur a conservative backlash in an election year, and a national dialogue over gay rights.
Several states later passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, and same-sex marriage became an issue in the race for president.
After a month of jubilant gay weddings here, the California Supreme Court intervened and ordered the city to stop issuing licenses to same sex couples. The state Supreme Court later invalidated the licenses, saying the city should have waited for a judicial ruling before acting.