California's constitution does not prohibit laws against gay marriage (search), Attorney General Bill Lockyer (search) declared Friday in a long-awaited legal opinion that sought to avoid offending either side of the contentious debate.

Meeting a judge's deadline to answer a pair of lawsuits seeking to overturn laws prohibiting same-sex (search) couples from marrying, Lockyer said it was up to the voters or the Legislature to decide such questions.

The lawsuits claim the state laws violate the state constitution's anti-discrimination provisions, an argument Lockyer rejected while noting that California lawmakers already have taken significant steps toward granting spousal benefits to gay couples who register as domestic partners (search).

"The state has a strong interest in valuing and maintaining its deeply rooted history and traditions," Lockyer wrote in the 48-page brief. "California's effort to find a balance between affording rights and benefits to same-sex couples, while maintaining a common understanding of marriage, does not run afoul of the Constitution."

The papers filed Friday in San Francisco Superior Court came in response to lawsuits by the city of San Francisco and gay rights advocates representing a dozen same-sex couples. They sued in March after the California Supreme Court ordered city officials to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

The plaintiffs are relying heavily on the same arguments that persuaded Massachusetts' highest court to legalize gay marriage there this year — namely, that laws limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman discriminate against gays and lesbians, violating their civil rights and several constitutional guarantees.

Both supporters and opponents of gay marriage were eager to see how Lockyer, a Democrat who has expressed interest in running for governor in 2006, planned to navigate the politically volatile question.

Jon Davidson, who is helping represent the 12 suing couples as a senior attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (search), said that in his view, Lockyer "is putting up a vigorous defense."

"It looks like the attorney general is making the strongest case the state can make to defend the restriction against same-sex couples from marrying given the current state of California law," Davidson said. "I am disappointed about his view that not allowing same-sex couples to marry is not discrimination against gay people."

By taking the position that any change in marriage eligibility criteria must come from the Legislature, however, Lockyer essentially advanced the same legal strategy that Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly, a fellow Democrat, unsuccessfully used to prevent gay couples from being able to wed in his state. The attorney general's office defends state agencies and laws.

"Committed and loving relationships between two individuals deserve recognition under California law," Lockyer conceded in a statement Friday. "The obligations and benefits that attend such relationships form the cornerstone of nurturing families and a stable society.

"For more than a century, however, the people of California have affirmed through initiative and by the actions of their elected state legislators that those obligations and benefits are available through marriage to opposite-sex couples, and, now, through domestic partnerships to same-sex couples. Any change to this long-standing policy is best reserved to the judgment of the voters and the state Legislature."

The parties in the California cases are set to meet in court on Oct. 26 for a schedule setting conference.