The California Supreme Court unanimously ordered San Francisco on Thursday to stop marrying gay couples and announced that it would rule on the legality of the city's actions within the next few months.
City officials immediately complied with the court's order, directing the clerk not to issue any more same-sex marriage licenses as of 2:33 p.m. Thursday. The ruling from the high court came four weeks after Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered his staff to issue same-sex licenses, arguing that to do otherwise would violate the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.
Although the court's action leaves those existing licenses in place -- at least for now -- it was a setback for Newsom and his allies. The justices said that when they heard the case this spring, they would consider only the fairly narrow question of whether San Francisco officials had the authority to deem a state law unconstitutional. Unless the city wins that argument, which most legal experts consider a daunting prospect, the marriage licenses that have already been issued probably will be void.
San Francisco officials had wanted to argue the broader issue of whether the state's family laws, which define marriage as between "a man and a woman" violated the California Constitution's ban on discrimination. The court said the city could still pursue that argument in the lower courts -- a process that could take two years.
Since Feb. 12, when the same-sex marriages began, 4,161 couples have received licenses in festive, often tearful, ceremonies conducted in some cases by top city and state officials and cheered on by supporters. Now in limbo are 2,688 more couples who had booked appointments to wed under the city's ornate rotunda through the end of May.
In its Thursday orders, the state high court told San Francisco to obey California marriage laws "without regard to respondent's personal view of the constitutionality of such provisions," until the court makes a final ruling, probably this summer.
In an afternoon news conference, Newsom apologized "to the couples who waited and were denied their constitutional rights today. That is wrong," he said. But he also expressed optimism that the city would ultimately prevail.
"I am pleased that the process is working as well as it is," he said. "As you know, we have asked for a day in the court, and that day is approaching."
Opponents of gay marriage and state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who had asked the court to prevent the city from issuing more same-sex marriage licenses, claimed victory.
"We're celebrating here, and thankful that the court has enforced the rule of law," said Benjamin Bull, chief counsel of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which filed one of the requests for a stay with the high court. "It's necessarily implied in today's ruling that whatever [the city has] done in violation of state law is fatally defective. I don't see how you can see it any other way."
Lockyer said he was "gratified" that the court "granted our request to quickly resolve this issue" by focusing on whether San Francisco city and county officials had the authority to recognize same-sex marriages.
Newsom's move unleashed a chain reaction across the country, with public officials in New Mexico, New York and Oregon following his lead. The New Mexico attorney general immediately quashed a clerk's actions there, and a Superior Court judge in New York ordered New Paltz Mayor Jason West to stop solemnizing marriages in that town. A hearing on actions by Portland, Ore., is scheduled for today.
Even President Bush entered the fray, announcing his support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage.
"Proponents of same-sex marriage have had a clear field for a couple of weeks," Bull said. "Now the legal system is catching up with the renegades and imposing the rule of law."
Although the court has promised expedited proceedings, that does not help same-sex couples who have already married.
"There really is a legal cloud on the status of those marriages and ceremonies and the people involved," Lockyer said. He will not seek to invalidate those licenses but will instead wait for the court's decision, he said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger applauded the court's action, saying in a prepared statement, "I believe very strongly that the people should obey the laws that we have here in California.
"The judicial system is the appropriate venue for resolving questions pertaining to the constitutionality of our state laws," he said.
Earlier in the day, Schwarzenegger, interviewed by Fox News, had repeated his position that he would have no problem with same-sex marriage if state voters approved it.
San Francisco city officials moved quickly to act on the court's suggestion that they pursue their constitutional arguments in lower courts. City Atty. Dennis Herrera announced late in the afternoon that his office had sued the state -- challenging the constitutionality of the family code statutes -- within an hour of the high court orders. "We're gratified the Supreme Court invited discussion on the constitutional issues," he said.
The gay marriages were first challenged in court by two organizations: the Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund, headed by state Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), and the Sacramento-based Campaign for California Families. Knight's group is being represented by the Alliance Defense Fund.
The senator, who sponsored the voter-approved Proposition 22 that defines marriage as heterosexual, said: "I'm delighted that someone has finally taken action to stop the anarchy that is being perpetrated in San Francisco."
He called it reasonable for the state's highest court to allow lower courts to hash out the constitutionality of gay marriage. The senator refused to comment about his 43-year-old son, David, a Baltimore woodworker who married his partner of 10 years, Joseph Lazzaro, in San Francisco on Tuesday.
Campaign for California Families Executive Director Randy Thomasson called the orders "the end of the counterfeit marriages in San Francisco" and said: "The people of California can celebrate the beauty of a bride and a groom as the standard for marriage and the appropriate role model for children."
Gay rights groups that have intervened on the city's side on behalf of five gay and lesbian couples said they remained hopeful. "The court didn't say, 'Stop it for good,' " said Jon Davidson, a senior lawyer with Lambda Legal. "What the court did was put it on hold."
Gay and lesbian couples reacted with disappointment and anger. Molly McKay, Northern California executive director of Marriage Equality California, quickly organized an evening march to the steps of the court and City Hall to protest. About 450 people attended the rousing rally, addressed by city and state officials. McKay married her partner last month, and said many friends had hoped to follow suit.
"We will prevail," she said. "It's just a matter of when. This is a civil rights issue, and I believe in our country's ability to right its past wrongs."
But legal analysts said the court's action indicated that the justices believed San Francisco had been violating state law and probably would eventually rule against the city.
"I would say the handwriting is on the wall," said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen.
UC Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett agreed, saying said the court had "come down hard on the city."
"Calling the mayor's constitutional proposition a personal view is rather critical, if not indignant," Barnett said.
Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who performed more than 100 marriages himself, has proposed a bill that would legalize gay marriage. On Thursday, he said he would defer to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) on whether legislators would hear the bill this year.
Gabriel Sanchez, a spokesman for Nunez, said the speaker would wait to see how lower courts ruled on the constitutionality of gay marriage before deciding whether to allow Leno's bill a hearing.
Times staff writers Cynthia Daniels and Nancy Vogel and correspondent Patrick Dillon contributed to this report.