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Friends Maya Scott-Chung, left, and COLAGE executive director Beth Teper, both from Oakland, are all smiles after hearing the State Supreme Court's decision in favor of same-sex marriages outside the California Supreme Court House in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday May 15, 2008. (Ray Chavez/The Oakland Tribune)

The California Supreme Court struck down state law's same-sex marriage ban Thursday, finding the state's constitution "properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples."

In a 4-3 ruling, the majority — with a 121-page opinion authored by Chief Justice Ronald George, joined by Associate Justices Joyce Kennard, Kathryn Werdegar and Carlos Moreno — found California law's assignment of a different name for the official family relationship of same-sex couples compared with that for opposite-sex couples "raises constitutional concerns not only under the state constitutional right to marry, but also under the state constitutional equal protection clause."

Deborah Hart and Janet Wallace of Oakland, together for 17 years, were among couples who brought this case in 2004. "I'm happy, I'm astounded, I'm thrilled at the decision," Wallace said Thursday.

Stuart Gaffney of San Francisco said he and his partner of 21 years, John Lewis, are "feeling boundless joy. "...Today is the happiest and most romantic day of our lives."

But the ruling — which can't take effect for 30 days, and then will require lower-court action before marriage licenses can be issued — sets the stage for a hard-fought, high-profile political battle. Same-sex marriage foes have submitted signatures to place on November's ballot a constitutional amendment saying "(o)nly marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California," thus rendering Thursday's ruling moot.

The ruling could ripple beyond California; American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California executive director Maya Harris said California's Supreme Court "influences the rest of the nation" as it's often cited by other state judiciaries.

And the issue is likely to be presidential-election fodder: Candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain issued statements Thursday supporting states' rights to decide the issue for themselves, McCain stressing a decision against same-sex marriage, and the Democrats expressing support for civil unions.

Associate Justice Marvin Baxter, joined by Associate Justice Ming Chin, dissented Thursday.

"If such a profound change in this ancient social institution is to occur, the people and their representatives, who represent the public conscience, should have the right, and the responsibility, to control the pace of that change through the democratic process," Baxter wrote, noting the existing state laws serve this purpose while "(t)he majority's decision erroneously usurps it."

Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, dissenting separately, similarly wrote she believes in same-sex marriage, but it's not the court's place to act. "We should allow the significant achievements embodied in the domestic partnership statutes to continue to take root. If there is to be a new understanding of the meaning of marriage in California, it should develop among the people of our state and find its expression at the ballot box."

Fourteen same-sex couples and two advocacy groups were joined by the city and county of San Francisco — which ratcheted up the rhetoric in 2004 by issuing same-sex marriage licenses, voided months later by the Supreme Court— in arguing California's ban violates same-sex couples' equal-protection rights and has no rational purpose.

San Francisco Chief Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart said hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples in California, and millions across the nation, will take heart from this ruling.

"The court will be criticized today by some people, and we all need to step up and get involved in defending the independence of the judiciary," she predicted. "This is a day to celebrate justice in the broadest sense of the word."

National Center for Lesbian Rights legal director Shannon Minter, the couples' lead counsel, said same-sex couples from other states can marry in California under this ruling, but other states' statutory or constitutional bans will preclude recognition of such bonds there. Also, a federal same-sex marriage ban means Thursday's ruling doesn't affect federal tax, immigration, social service and other benefits.

Still, the ruling is "a powerful affirmation of love, family and commitment," Minter said. "We are so proud of our court for standing up for fairness and opportunity."

Arguing against same-sex marriage in these six consolidated cases were the state attorney general's office, duty-bound to defend existing state law, and two conservative groups.

Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver, who argued for the conservative nonprofit Campaign for California Families, said the ruling "defies logic" and is "a gross departure from the rule of law."

"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," he said. "Same-sex marriage is not part of our history nor is it woven in the fabric of fundamental freedom"... This decision will ignite California voters to amend their state constitution to protect marriage and prevent judges from wrecking marriage."

State officials are still verifying petition signatures submitted by same-sex marriage foes in April to put the constitutional same-sex marriage ban on November's ballot.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Thursday he respects and will uphold the decision: "Also, as I have said in the past, I will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn this state Supreme Court ruling."

But Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel Glen Lavy, who argued for the Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund —named for the 2000 measure passed by 61 percent of voters to reinforce state law's same-sex marriage ban — said an amendment is "ultimately the only avenue to ensure that no one interferes with the will of the people."

Alliance Defense Fund senior attorney Joseph Infranco said his client might ask the Supreme Court to stay its order beyond the usual 30 days pending the election. "There's reason to believe a majority of voters in California still believe the essential definition of marriage is still one man and one woman," he said.

Attorney General Jerry Brown's spokesman said the state hasn't considered joining in that request for a further stay.

Equality California executive director Geoffrey Kors said his and other groups treat the proposed amendment "as a serious threat" and already are working to defeat it. California polls show support and opposition for same-sex marriage about even, but this ruling plus the governor's support should push the battle their way, he said. "We believe we'll win again in November."

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer in March 2005 had found for same-sex marriage; the state Court of Appeals overturned his ruling with a 2-1 decision in October 2006. The state Supreme Court unanimously agreed to review the case in December 2006 and heard several hours of oral arguments March 4.

"Today is a day we'll remember forever," said Molly Mckay of Oakland, a spokeswoman for Marriage Equality USA. "I can't wait to marry Davina after 12 wonderful years together. This time, we'll be able to ensure our parents can be there with us, too. I am so proud to be a part of the generation who gets to see this dream come true for all Californians. We, along with many of our friends at Marriage Equality USA, have spent years sharing the stories of our lives with our neighbors, co-workers and friends and just knew in our heart of hearts that this day would come, and it is finally here.

"Simply put, we are elated."


Key Dates
Feb. 12, 2004 -- San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom directs officials to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Feb. 2004 -- Same-sex couples and their advocates file five lawsuits in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles challenging the constitutionality of state law's ban on same-sex marriage.
Mar. 11, 2004 -- California's Supreme Court halts the issuance of licenses after about 4,000 couples have wed.
Aug. 12, 2004 -- California's Supreme Court voids all of the licenses and weddings from earlier in the year.
March 14, 2005 -- San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer, presiding over the six consolidated constitutional cases, strikes down state laws barring same-sex marriage.
Oct. 5, 2006 -- A California Court of Appeals panel votes 2-1 to overturn Kramer's ruling, finding the statutory ban violates no constitutional rights.
Dec. 20, 2006 -- California's Supreme Court unanimously agrees to review the Court of Appeal ruling.
March 4, 2008 -- California's Supreme Court hears oral arguments.
May 15, 2008 -- California's Supreme Court issues 4-3 ruling striking down state laws barring same-sex marriage


What's next
The Supreme Court's ruling won't take effect for 30 days; after that, the case can be handed back down through the Court of Appeal to the San Francisco Superior Court, which can issue a writ letting counties start issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
At least one of the groups opposing same-sex marriage is considering asking the Supreme Court to stay its ruling until after Election Day in November, so California voters have a chance to decide whether to amend the state's constitution to ban same-sex marriage and make Thursday's ruling moot. State officials are still verifying petition signatures submitted to put this amendment on the ballot.