LOS ANGELES, Aug. 12 -- California's Supreme Court on Thursday nullified the nearly 4,000 same-sex marriages that San Francisco sanctioned this spring, ruling that the city did not have the authority to take such action in defiance of state law.
In a unanimous opinion, the justices said that allowing public officials to flout state statutes that they consider legally dubious would create a dangerous precedent. "Any semblance of uniform rule of law would quickly disappear," state Chief Justice Ronald George said. The court then voted 5 to 2 to invalidate the marriages.
Laura Espinosa, left, and Dolores Caruthers weep on San Francisco's courthouse steps after the rulings.
(Lou Dematteis -- Reuters)
The court's rulings focused only on the narrow question of whether San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had the right to legalize same-sex marriage -- not the larger issue of whether the ban on such unions is constitutional. That momentous question has not yet reached the state's highest court but is making its way through California's judicial system. It could be resolved next year.
Newsom's decision to permit same-sex marriages drew gay couples from around the world and created a month-long carnival of civil disobedience inside San Francisco's City Hall, where vows were exchanged. It also inspired other municipalities to take similar steps and intensified the national debate on the issue that is now rippling through legislatures, courts and the presidential campaign.
Conservative religious groups exulted Thursday after the California court announced its rulings. They expressed hope that it would help derail other campaigns developing across the country in support of same-sex marriage. "The justices rightly saw the chaos that could ensue if a local official was allowed to defy the law," said Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which helped lead the legal challenge to San Francisco's same-sex unions. "The licenses were null and void from Day One." For gay couples wed by the city this spring, and the national advocacy groups championing their cause, the court's decision brought disappointment and confusion -- but also fervent new vows to keep fighting to overturn the California law that defines marriage strictly as a union between a man and a woman.
"It hurts," said Molly McKay, who was among the first people in line in San Francisco to get a same-sex marriage license and who wore a white wedding gown to her City Hall ceremony. "It really hurts."
Jon W. Davidson, senior counsel for the gay rights group Lambda Legal, called the court's decision to nullify the marriages "shockingly disrespectful," but he expressed confidence that gay couples who want to marry will eventually prevail. He noted that Massachusetts's highest court has sanctioned same-sex marriage.
"When we make the full case for marriage equality and courts look closely at the issue, they are ruling clearly in our favor," Davidson said.
Newsom, who took office in January, said that he will comply with the court's decision -- but he added that he expects to be vindicated once the justices consider the constitutionality of the state ban against same-sex marriage. He also praised the gay couples that San Francisco had married. "They took a stand," Newsom told reporters. "There is nothing that any court decision or politician can do that will take that moment away."
The unanimous court vote against San Francisco's action did not come as a surprise. At a hearing on the issue in May, a majority of the justices appeared to be troubled by what Newsom had done, saying his decision could prompt elected leaders in other cities to disregard other state laws that they do not support. One justice said that San Francisco had created a "mess.''
Some city officials had thought the court might keep the same-sex marriages valid at least until it decides whether the ban on such unions is constitutional. But five justices decided that it would not be "prudent or wise" to leave the legality of the marriages uncertain for an extended time. The court also ordered the city to refund the $82 fee that gay couples had paid for their marriage licenses.
Two justices dissented, saying that invalidating the marriages before the ban's constitutionality is resolved is "premature."
Nullifying the unions could complicate the lives of some gay couples in an assortment of ways. Some married by the city have used their licenses to enhance their workplace, government and other benefits. Those benefits could now be in jeopardy.
Newsom began marrying gay couples in February, saying that he felt obligated to follow state laws banning discrimination. The mayor raised that issue again Thursday. "Separate does not mean equal," he said.
The ceremonies this spring provoked a frenzy of debates around the country, some of which are still unfolding. President Bush has since advocated amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, a move the Senate recently rejected. Judges in Oregon and Washington have struck down state laws prohibiting same-sex unions. Missouri voters recently backed a ballot measure declaring the practice unconstitutional. Similar measures will be on the ballot in about a dozen states this fall.
The California Supreme Court halted the marriages in March at the request of the state's attorney general, Bill Lockyer (D), and conservative groups that oppose same-sex unions. They said the ceremonies violated state law and a 2000 ballot initiative approved by voters that reinforced the ban on same-sex marriage. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) had also demanded an end to the ceremonies.
Their reasons were reflected in the court's decision Thursday. The justices said that if Newsom's action were allowed to stand, other municipal leaders would have had legal cover to ignore state laws on gun control or environmental protection -- even the rights that gay couples in California have when they register as domestic partners.
Even as they celebrated their victory Thursday, some conservative groups expressed concern that a larger challenge -- protecting the constitutionality of the state's ban on same-sex marriage -- lies ahead. "This battle is far from over," said Randy Thomasson, executive director of Campaign for California Families.
Special correspondent Joe Dignan in San Francisco contributed to this report.