March

In San Francisco, supporters celebrate after a judge ruled that banning gay marriages in California was unconstitutional. The case is likely to end up before the California Supreme Court. (Robert Durell / LAT)

SAN FRANCISCO - Gays and lesbians have a right to marry under the California Constitution, a state judge here ruled yesterday, striking down state laws that limit marriage to "a man and a woman."

"No rational basis exists for limiting marriage in this state to opposite-sex partners," wrote San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer. "Same-sex marriage cannot be prohibited solely because California has always done so before."

The ruling does not mean that gay couples in California can immediately wed. The decision will be stayed at least temporarily to allow an appeal, which opponents of gay marriage say they plan to file. The case likely will end up before the California Supreme Court, which is not expected to rule until next year.

But both sides in the heated arguments over gay marriage predicted that this latest legal ruling would intensify a dispute that has roiled the nation since 2003, when the highest court in Massachusetts declared that gay couples had a right to marry under that state's constitution.

"California has always been a harbinger for what the rest of the country does," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "This decision - for states committed to fairness and justice - is a perfect road map for how to achieve that for gays and lesbians."

Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican and leading conservative on social issues, said the ruling strengthens the case for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would take away the authority of states to set their own rules on marriage. "Today's lower court ruling in California, and other court rulings, further support the need for a constitutional amendment to protect marriage from activist judges for the good of families, children and society," he said.

In recent months, trial courts in New York, Oregon and Washington have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, while one in New Jersey recently ruled against it. Those rulings have been appealed.

The Washington case has already been heard by that state's high court and a ruling could come soon. Lower court cases are pending in Maryland and Connecticut.

In California, the issue of gay marriage burst onto the public stage last year when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom directed county officials to issue marriage licenses to more than 4,000 same-sex couples.

After four weeks of ceremonies, the California Supreme Court ruled that Newsom had exceeded his authority. But the court made clear it was not ruling on whether gay marriage should be allowed and invited supporters of gay marriage to take the dispute to Superior Court. That set the stage for the argument before Kramer in December.

San Francisco officials, along with gay rights organizations and more than a dozen same-sex couples, argued that the current state law, adopted in 1977, discriminated improperly against gay men and lesbians.

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer defended the law, as did several organizations that oppose gay marriage.

Randy Thomasson, executive director of the Campaign for California Families, said the ruling means "there's absolutely no value to marriage being a man and a woman or a child having a mom and a dad."

Thomasson called the ruling "a sword through the heart of California voters." The decision would void Proposition 22, passed in 2000 by 61 percent of voters, which said California would not recognize gay marriages performed in other states.

In his decision, Kramer said the state law violated a person's fundamental right to marry. He dismissed the state's contention that gays and lesbians can be denied the right to marry on the basis of tradition and culture.

"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.

In a television interview, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cast the court ruling as one of "many events" in a continuing legal battle over whether gays should be permitted to marry.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.