Gays and lesbians have a right to marry under the California Constitution, a state judge here ruled Monday, striking down state laws that limit marriage to “a man and a woman.”
“No rational basis exists for limiting marriage in this state to opposite-sex partners,” wrote San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer. “Same-sex marriage cannot be prohibited solely because California has always done so before.”
The ruling does not mean that gay couples in California can immediately wed. The decision will be stayed to allow an appeal, which opponents of gay marriage say they plan to file. The case is likely to end up before the California Supreme Court, which is not expected to rule until next year.
But both sides in the heated arguments over gay marriage predicted that the ruling would intensify a dispute that has roiled the nation since 2003, when the highest court in Massachusetts declared that gay couples had a right to marry under that state’s Constitution.
“California has always been a harbinger,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “This decision -- for states committed to fairness and justice -- is a perfect road map for how to achieve that for gays and lesbians.”
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a leading conservative on social issues, said the ruling strengthened the case for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would take away the authority of states to set their own rules on marriage.
“Today’s lower court ruling in California, and other court rulings, further support the need for a constitutional amendment to protect marriage from activist judges for the good of families, children and society,” he said.
In recent months, trial courts in New York, Oregon and Washington state have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage and one in New Jersey recently ruled against it. Those rulings have been appealed.
The Washington case has been heard by that state’s high court, and a ruling could come soon. Lower court cases are pending in Maryland and Connecticut.
In California, the issue of gay marriage burst onto the public stage last year, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom directed county officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
After four weeks of ceremonies for more than 4,000 couples, the California Supreme Court ruled that Newsom had exceeded his authority as mayor.
But the high court made clear it was not ruling on whether gay marriage should be allowed, and invited supporters of gay marriage to take the dispute to Superior Court.
San Francisco officials, along with gay rights organizations and more than a dozen same-sex couples, argued that the current state law, adopted in 1977, discriminated against gay men and lesbians.
State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer defended the laws, as did several organizations that oppose gay marriage.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” Glen Lavy, attorney for one of those groups, the Alliance Defense Fund, based in Arizona, said of Monday’s ruling. “But this is ... one decision in a long war.”
Randy Thomasson, executive director of the Campaign for California Families, another group that fought to defend the current laws, said the ruling means “there’s absolutely no value to marriage being between a man and a woman or a child having a mom and a dad.”
Thomasson called the ruling “a sword through the heart of California voters.” The decision would void Proposition 22, passed in 2000 by 61% of voters, which said California would not recognize gay marriages performed in other states.
Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Lockyer, declined to comment, saying only that his office was “reviewing the decision.”
In a television interview, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cast the court ruling as one of “many events” in a continuing legal battle over whether gays should be permitted to marry. He said the issue would be settled by the state Supreme Court -- and that he would stand by that ruling.
As for his own position, Schwarzenegger’s answers have been contradictory. He said in the interview Monday that he supports domestic partnerships. But he also said: “I don’t believe in gay marriage.” He had said previously, “I don’t care one way or the other.”
Newsom offered no such ambiguity. “It’s a good day in San Francisco,” he declared at a news conference at City Hall, where he was surrounded by some of the same-sex partners who are plaintiffs in the court proceedings.
“We are hopeful that we can get through the appellate process and to the California Supreme Court as quickly as possible,” Newsom said. “The reason: Lives are in the balance.”
Standing near Newsom was Christopher Bradshaw, 25, of Marin, who recalled how he had experienced a mixture of “secrecy and fear” while growing up because of his mothers’ unrecognized relationship.
“I always felt somewhat unsafe about revealing their relationship, and I didn’t understand why,” he said as he hugged one of his mothers, Jeanne Rizzo. “I knew they were very good together.”
In his decision, Kramer said the state laws violated a person’s fundamental right to marry and illegally discriminated on the basis of gender.
He dismissed the state’s contention that gays and lesbians can be denied the right to marry on the basis of tradition. Similar arguments had been made in favor of laws banning marriages between people of different races, he noted.
He also rejected Lockyer’s argument that because California provides domestic partnerships it does not need to allow gays to marry. “The idea that marriage-like rights without marriage is adequate smacks of a concept long rejected by the courts: separate but equal,” the judge wrote.
The judge also rejected the argument that matrimony was intended for procreation and therefore naturally limited to opposite-sex couples.
Many opposite-sex couples marry without ever having children -- or even being able to conceive -- and gay couples can have children through adoption and medical technology, he noted.
“One does not have to be married to procreate, nor does one have to procreate in order to be married,” Kramer wrote.
Some opponents of gay marriage have argued that allowing same-sex couples to wed would open the way for legalized incest or adults marrying children.
Kramer rejected that argument as well. The state can limit who is permitted to marry if there is a legitimate governmental interest for doing so, Kramer said. But, he said, state officials have provided no such justification for barring same-sex unions.
“The parade of horrible social ills envisioned by the opponents of same-sex marriage is not a necessary result from recognizing that there is a fundamental right to choose who one wants to marry,” he wrote.
The decision was more sweeping than advocates of gay marriage had expected, and legal experts said it strengthened their case.
“If I were the plaintiff, I would be dancing in the street,” said University of Santa Clara Law Professor Gerald Uelmen. “This puts them in the best possible posture to go up on appeal.”
Once Kramer finalizes the wording of his decision later this month, the state and opponents of same-sex marriage could go to the intermediate Court of Appeal in San Francisco or ask the California Supreme Court to take the case.
Uelmen predicted that the California Supreme Court would agree to take the case directly.
Six of the seven justices on the high court were appointed by Republican governors. But so was Kramer, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996. Kramer, 57, formerly practiced civil law, primarily commercial litigation.
On the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Ronald M. George is frequently a swing vote between the three most conservative and three most liberal justices.
While the issue moves through the courts, it is also likely to continue echoing in legislative chambers in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
Opponents of gay marriage almost certainly do not have time to place an initiative on November’s ballot, but “if this opinion is affirmed all the way up the ladder, I think it’s very clear there would be an effort to amend the Constitution by initiative,” said state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside).
“This opinion, whatever the legal grounds, is contrary to the people’s voice,” said Morrow, who has proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage.
Majorities of state voters in several polls in the last year said they oppose gay marriage.
In Washington state, the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage fell far short of the two-thirds majority required for passage last year despite support from President Bush, who has sent mixed signals about pursuing the fight this year.
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas, Nancy Vogel, Dan Morain, Jordan Rau and Robert Salladay in Sacramento, and Maura Reynolds and Ronald Brownstein in Washington contributed to this report.
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California is among 40 states that limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. Here’s a look at the state’s actions and gay marriage bans nationally:
1977: California Family Code is changed to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Oct. 1999: Gov. Gray Davis signs bill creating domestic partner registry. Subsequent laws add more rights.
Feb. 2004: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom orders marriage licenses to cover same-sex applicants. Over 4,000 are issued, before court-ordered halt.
Aug. 2004: The state Supreme Court voids all San Francisco gay marriages, saying mayor lacked authority to allow them.
Jan. 2005: A state domestic partnership law grants registered gay couples most benefits afforded married spouses.
Monday: San Francisco Superior Court finds that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples is unconstitutional.
Sources: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Human Rights Campaign, Associated Press. Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein Santiago