Spotlight returns to California

California's turbulent relationship with gay marriage can be traced back eight years, almost to the day, when San Francisco abruptly began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. So many people showed up, they had to say their vows three and four couples at a time under the dome of City Hall, some in matching gowns and tuxedos, many spilling into the streets in buoyant celebration.

Those heady days only managed to produce a quagmire -- a voter-approved gay-marriage ban; ceaseless legal battles; marriage licenses offered, then rescinded; a gay community whiplashed between joy and despair.

Over time, momentum seemed to pass California by. More than a dozen jurisdictions now recognize gay marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships that convey similar rights; and in the last two years, some polls have begun showing that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage rights.

But when a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Proposition 8 on Tuesday, it planted the flag of same-sex marriage -- and, in no small measure, the gay rights movement itself -- back in California.

The architects of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that limited marriage to one man and one woman, are likely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But many legal analysts said the federal judges' forceful findings could resonate for years in both the legal debate and the national conversation about gay rights.

"California has once again made marriage history," said a beaming Stuart Gaffney outside San Francisco's federal courthouse.

Gaffney and his partner of 25 years, John Lewis, carried a sign that said: "Our Silver Anniversary Wish: The Freedom to Marry for All." They were one of the first same-sex couples married in 2004 in San Francisco; when the courts dissolved that marriage, they married again in 2008 -- one of the 18,000 same-sex couples who legally married that year in California before voters passed Proposition 8.

"We already knew in our hearts that Proposition 8 violated the rule of love. We're so happy to see that the 9th Circuit says it violates the rule of law," Gaffney said. "It's been a long road."

In recent years, California was not looking like a bellwether state when it came to gay marriage.

Gay rights groups were stunned when California voters approved Proposition 8 in November 2008. The vote followed an aggressive campaign by activists who argued that legalizing gay marriage would force the introduction of inappropriate material in schools and undermine heterosexual marriages. The campaign famously used a clip of then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom saying gay marriage would happen "whether you like it or not."

Since Proposition 8's passage, voters in one state after another have rejected gay marriage when the issue was put to a popular vote. Still, governments of six states and Washington, D.C., have allowed it. In a seventh state, Washington, the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a same-sex marriage proposal Wednesday.

At the same time, several polls nationally and in California have found growing support for gay marriage.

In 2008, the Field Poll found, for the first time in more than three decades of studying the issue, that a majority of Californians approved of legal same-sex marriage. In 2010, a CNN poll found a slim majority of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage -- reportedly the first national poll to reach that conclusion. A year later, a Pew Research Center survey found that 46% of Americans supported gay marriage and 44% opposed it.

With Tuesday's ruling, however, the nation's most populous state could be "back in the business of marrying," said West Hollywood Mayor John J. Duran, where more than a third of residents are gay.

The 9th Circuit judges, anticipating an appeal, stayed their decision Tuesday. But once Proposition 8 backers move forward with an appeal, attorneys on the other side plan to ask the 9th Circuit to lift the stay.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he has already instructed the county clerk to reach out to counterparts across the state so weddings can proceed smoothly once the stay is lifted.

"We're getting ready," he told a crowd at City Hall.

Opposition, as ever, will remain vociferous. A group of Catholic bishops savaged the 9th Circuit opinion, calling it a "grave injustice." The two leading Republican presidential candidates followed suit; Mitt Romney said the decision "cast aside the will of the people," and Newt Gingrich called it "an assault on the Judeo-Christian foundations of the United States."

Lawyers who fought on behalf of the gay community acknowledged that their campaign to overturn Proposition 8 has been designed from the start to win not only a battle in court but a battle for hearts and minds.

"The more you talk to people, the more they listen, the more they realize this is right, and this is inevitable," said Theodore Olson, former President George W. Bush's solicitor general and one of two lead attorneys who fought the Proposition 8 case on behalf of gay-rights advocates.

In West Hollywood, the furrows on 85-year-old Ivy Bottini's face deepened as she strained to remember the first time she heard two women talk about the possibility of getting married. It was, she said, roughly 30 years ago. "It was like: Oh, God -- really?"

"I am very honored to have lived this long, to see this for people who want to get married," said Bottini, a women's rights advocate for half a century, reaching toward her partner, Dottie Wine. "For many people, it says: 'I am a human being. I am a good person and I love this person. And we deserve to be together.' "

California, Bottini said, may have been ahead of its time -- and its gay community may have paid the price. In 2004, even some gay rights advocates denounced the decision by Newsom to begin issuing marriage licenses, calling it a stunt and a distraction from more deliberate legal efforts.

"California has always been a lightning rod," Bottini said. "We start things long before it catches fire in other people's minds and hearts. And we get a lot of flak for that. We've already won. We just don't know it yet."

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scott.gold@latimes.com

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

maria.laganga@latimes.com

Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.

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