In a win for gay rights activists, a judge in California ruled Monday that marriage cannot constitutionally be limited to a legal union between a man and a woman.
If upheld on appeal, Monday's ruling by San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer would pave the way for the Golden State to follow Massachusetts in allowing same-sex couples (search) to wed.
The judge wrote that the state's historical definition of marriage alone cannot justify not providing equal protection to gay and lesbian couples and their right to marry.
"It appears that no rational purpose exists for limiting marriage in this state to opposite-sex partners," Kramer wrote. "The state's protracted denial of equal protection cannot be justified simply because such constitutional violation has become traditional."
Kramer's decision came in a pair of lawsuits seeking to overturn California's statutory ban on gay marriage (search). They were brought by the city of San Francisco and a dozen same-sex couples last March, after the California Supreme Court halted the four-week marriage spree Mayor Gavin Newsom (search) had initiated when he directed city officials to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians in defiance of state law.
Newsom, who gained national attention for urging city officials to continue to marry same-sex couples, last month marked the anniversary of his decision to sanction same-sex marriage by urging gay couples to back politicians who support it.
"Today's ruling is an important step toward a more fair and just California, that rejects discrimination and affirms family values for all California families," San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said.
Immediately, opponents of gay marriage said they would appeal. The Alliance Defense Fund (search) and another legal group representing religious conservatives joined Attorney General Bill Lockyer in defending the existing law. Lockyer has previously said he expected the case to reach the California Supreme Court. The case will likely go through the Court of Appeals before it reaches the state's highest bar.
But supporters said they expected the precedent to work for them within the court system and at the ballot box, both places where Therese Stewart, attorney for the city and county of San Francisco, expected the battle for gays and lesbians to marry to be fought.
"It's a foregone conclusion that it's going to go up on appeal," Stewart said.
Meanwhile, a pair of bills pending before the California Legislature would put a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the November ballot. If California voters follow the 13 other states that approved such amendments last year, that would put the issue out of the control of lawmakers and the courts.
President Bush himself has said he supports a constitutional amendment stating that marriage is between one man and one woman. Momentum behind that goal has simmered somewhat in Congress.
Nevertheless, the plaintiffs and their lawyers said Kramer's ruling was a milestone for California, akin to the 1948 state Supreme Court decision that made California the first state in the nation to legalize interracial marriage.
The decision is the latest development in a national debate on the legality and morality of same-sex marriage that has been raging since 2003, when the highest court in Massachusetts decided that denying gay couples the right to wed was unconstitutional in that state.
In the wake of the Massachusetts ruling, gay rights advocates filed lawsuits seeking to strike down traditional marriage laws in several other states, and opponents responded by proposing state and federal constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.
Kramer is the fourth trial court judge in recent months to decide that the right to marry and its attendant benefits must be extended to same-sex couples. Two Washington state judges, ruling last summer in separate cases, held that prohibiting same-sex marriage violates that state's constitution, and on Feb. 4, a judge in Manhattan ruled in favor of five gay couples who had been denied marriage licenses by New York City. That ruling applies only in the city but could extend statewide if upheld on appeal. Similar cases are pending in trial courts in Connecticut and Maryland.
Just as many judges have gone the other way in recent months, however, refusing to accept the argument that keeping gays and lesbians from marrying violates their civil rights. A New Jersey judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by seven gay couples fighting to have their unions legally recognized. Most recently, the Indiana Court of Appeals in January upheld that state's gay marriage ban. All the cases are on appeal.
The California lawsuits have been closely watched. The state has the highest percentage of same-sex partners in the nation, and its Legislature has gone further than any other in voluntarily providing gay couples the perks of marriage without a court order.
Since Jan. 1, same-sex couples registering as domestic partners in California are granted virtually all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, including access to divorce courts, the ability to collect child support and the responsibility for a partner's debts. So in California, the arguments for striking down the gay marriage ban have centered as much on the social meaning of marriage as the benefits it affords as a legal institution.
The couples, represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (search), the Lambda Legal (search) and the American Civil Liberties Union (search), conceded that California's domestic partnership law may be the strongest in the nation outside of Vermont's civil unions. But they claimed it still does not go far enough because it creates a separate and inherently unequal marriage-like institution for same-sex couples.
The Attorney General's Office maintained that tradition dictates that marriage should be restricted to opposite-sex couples. Lockyer also cited the state's domestic partners law (search) as evidence that California does not discriminate against gays.
Kramer rejected that argument, citing Brown v. Board of Education (search), the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down segregated schools.
"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.
Two groups opposed to gay marriage rights, The Campaign for California Families (search) and the Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund (search), argued that the state has a legitimate interest in restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples as a way of encouraging procreation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.