California Supreme Court Strikes Bans on Same-Sex Marriage

The California Supreme Court opens the way for same-sex marriages, although challenges to the decision loom. Video by AP
By Robert Barnes and Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 16, 2008

The California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that gays have a constitutional right to marry, striking down state laws that forbade it, in a decision that is likely to reenergize the election-year debate over same-sex marriages and gay rights.

The 4 to 3 ruling opened the way for the nation's most populous state to join Massachusetts in allowing partners of the same sex to marry. The court's order becomes final in 30 days, and it told county clerks and registrars to prepare.

Marriage is a "basic civil right" guaranteed to all Californians, "whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples," Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote in a 121-page ruling. He repeatedly said the ruling was based on the California court's first-in-the-nation decision in 1948 to end the state's prohibition on interracial marriage, nearly 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court took the same action.

The decision sparked a joyous celebration outside the court in San Francisco, but the victory for gay rights groups could be short-lived. Before the ruling, a conservative coalition submitted more than 1 million signatures to place a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the November ballot.

"These out-of-touch judges will not have the last word on marriage," said Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage California.

If the proposed amendment makes the ballot, the issue is sure to resonate in the fall, not only in California but also on the presidential campaign trail.

Democratic Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) issued careful and nearly identical statements saying they support civil unions to protect the rights of same-sex couples. Both avoided taking a position on same-sex marriage, saying states should make such decisions.

Sen. John McCain's campaign said the Arizona Republican "supports the right of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution sanctioning the union between a man and a woman."

McCain, who last week decried judicial activism, "doesn't believe judges should be making these decisions," a spokesman added.

A different reaction came from California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has twice vetoed legislation that would have allowed same-sex marriages.

"I respect the Court's decision and as Governor, I will uphold its ruling," he said in a statement. ". . . I will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn this state Supreme Court ruling."

The landmark decision grew out of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's directive to local clerks four years ago to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying it was unconstitutional not to. Starting on Feb. 12, 2004, thousands descended on San Francisco's City Hall to obtain those licenses and exchange marriage vows.

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