The California Supreme Court (search) ordered an immediate halt to gay marriages in San Francisco on Thursday and said it would hear arguments in May or June on whether Mayor Gavin Newsom had the authority to allow such marriages.
Teary-eyed gay couples were turned away at City Hall, where more than 3,700 same-sex couples have been wed since Feb. 12. The first couple to be denied a license were Art Adams and Devin Baker from suburban Mountain View.
"We were filling out the application and they told us to stop," said Adams, who has been with Baker for more than three years. "It's heartbreaking. I don't understand why two people in love should be prevented from expressing it."
The action by California's highest court came two weeks after state Attorney General Bill Lockyer (search) and a conservative group asked the seven justices to immediately block the gay marriages.
The dispute began when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered his administration to issue same-sex marriage licenses. A steady stream of gay and lesbians from two dozen states have traveled to be married at City Hall, just a block from where the Supreme Court sits.
Newsom's defiance of California law prompted a host of other municipalities across the nation to follow suit, and President Bush last month said he would back a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.
"They restored order to chaos in San Francisco," said Joshua Carden, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund (search), one of two conservative groups that went to court to block the marriages.
The justices ruled unanimously that Newsom must "refrain from issuing marriage licenses or certificates not authorized" by California's marriage codes.
California's top court did not immediately address whether Newsom had the legal power to authorize the marriages, which contravenes a state law and voter referendum that say marriage is a union between a man and a woman. The justices skirted the question of whether the California Constitution would permit a gay marriage, as Newsom claims.
Instead, the justices moved to block any more marriages, at least for now, until they decide whether Newsom had the power to authorize such unions. The court did not void the marriages already performed, leaving thousands of newly married couples in legal limbo.
Walter Bowen had an appointment to be married on St. Patrick's Day, next Wednesday. Now the hair salon owner and his partner of two years will have to wait.
"I sent several announcements and spent already several hundred dollars and was going to make it our wedding day," Bowen said. "I may go stand on the steps of City Hall with my friends and have a moment of silence."
Jon Davidson, an attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (search), a gay rights legal aid group, said Thursday's ruling simply puts the issue on hold for now.
"The court has put everything on pause rather than stop," he said. "They are saying that until we hear this, you are on pause."
Court watchers predicted the justices will rule that Newsom overstepped his authority.
"I think it's a pretty clear-cut principle that you can't let every elected official decide on his own whether a statute is constitutional," said Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University School of Law scholar who closely follows the California Supeme Court.
Still, such an outcome would not foreclose th epossibility of gay marriages in California. The court, in its two orders Thursday, said the dispute on whether a same-sex marriage would be permitted under California's Constitution should work its way through the lower courts. That process could take a year or more before it again reaches the state high court.
In statehouses nationwide, lawmakers are scrutinizing their constitutions to see if they could be construed to permit same-sex marriages, even in states where laws now bar them.
The California court's action came as Massachusetts lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment Thursday that would make gay marriages illegal but allow for civil unions. That state's highest court ruled in November that it was unconstitutional to prevent gays from marrying -- a ruling that sparked a legislative scramble to amend the state constitution.
Hundreds of gays have wedded in San Francisco since the court was asked on Feb. 25 and Feb. 27 to intervene. Lockyer and the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative group that says a marriage should be between a man and woman, said the court's action was urgently needed because thousands of newly married gays might otherwise think they enjoy the same rights granted other married couples -- such as the right to receive the other spouse's property in the absence of a will.
The Social Security Administration has said it would not accept any marriage licenses from San Francisco as proof of marriage until the legal dispute was resolved.
Lockyer has been under fire from every side since San Francisco began issuing the marriage licenses a month ago.
Newsom has also sued the state on grounds that California's marriage laws violate the state constitution's equal protection clause. Pressure on Lockyer, a Democrat and the state's top law enforcer, intensified when Republican Schwarzenegger directed him last month to "take immediate steps" to halt San Francisco's marriage march.
Lockyer, without taking a position on whether same-sex marriages should be deemed constitutional, told the California justices it was a matter for the courts, not Newsom, to decide.
The cases are Lockyer v. San Francisco, S122923 and Lewis v. Alfaro, S122865.