SAN FRANCISCO—After a four-year hiatus, same-sex marriage, the hot-button cultural issue that served as a partisan divide in the last presidential election, is back. Today, the California Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a voter initiative banning same-sex marriage in the state. Its 4-to-3 decision paves the way for California to join Massachusetts, where the state's highest court legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, as one of two states where gay and lesbian couples can legally marry. "It is a precedent-setting case," says Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University. "It's a major victory for proponents of same-sex marriage in the most populous state in the union."
The decision ends a legal challenge that began soon after the Massachusetts court's decision in 2004, when Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, sparking joyous celebrations in some quarters—and outrage in others. (That spring, President Bush threw his support behind a federal constitutional amendment that would have redefined marriage as between a man and a woman. It has never passed.) The California Supreme Court, meanwhile, voted against Newsom, annulling the marriages in August 2004, citing a state law, Proposition 22, passed in 2000 by more than 60 percent of voters, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the law were filed the next day.
Today, California's high court issued a ruling offering unwavering support for the 23 same-sex couples who brought the case. In the majority opinion, Ronald George, the court's chief justice, found not only that gays and lesbians enjoy the same fundamental right to marry that straight couples do but also that preventing them from marrying amounts to a denial of their equal-protection rights under the California Constitution. "What the court recognized today is that it's time for that historic prejudice to end and the state should no longer participate in it in any way," said Therese Stewart, a deputy city attorney who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Even before the celebration could begin, though, all eyes turned to the next battleground in the state. Conservative groups have recently submitted more than 1.1 million signatures that will most likely put an initiative on the November ballot that would amend the Constitution and outlaw same-sex marriage. But same-sex marriage proponents suddenly found themselves with an unlikely ally. As soon as the decision was announced, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has twice vetoed legislation that would have legalized marriage in the state, said he would oppose the initiative. "I respect the court's decision, and as governor, I will uphold its ruling," he said. "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."
For now, the fight will move from the courtroom to the ballot box.