A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned Proposition 8 on narrow grounds, ruling that Californians took away a right from a minority group without justification when they approved the 2008 ban on same-sex marriage.
The 2-1 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will have limited effect outside California because it is based on voter repeal of a right a minority already enjoyed.
"The people may not employ the initiative power to single out a disfavored group for unequal treatment and strip them, without a legitimate justification, of a right as important as the right to marry," the court said.
The ruling was based on a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a Colorado initiative that prevented local governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances to protect gays and lesbians.
The high court in that case said the federal constitution prevents states from taking away rights from minorities because of moral disapproval.
In a separate decision, the appeals court refused to invalidate the federal court ruling by retired Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker on the grounds that he should have disclosed he was in a long term same-sex relationship. Walker, a Republican appointee who is openly gay, said after his ruling that he had been in a relationship with another man for 10 years. He has never said whether he and his partner wished to marry.
The backers of Proposition 8 can appeal Tuesday's decision to a larger panel of the 9th Circuit or go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court is expected to be divided on the issue.
Gays and lesbians were entitled to marry in California for six months after the California Supreme Court struck down a state ban in May 2008. The state high court later upheld Proposition 8 as a valid amendment of the California Constitution.