SAN FRANCISCO - The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that San Francisco's mayor overstepped his authority by issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
By a 5-2 vote, the court also declared the more than 4,000 marriages of gay and lesbian couples that had been sanctioned by the city "void from their inception and a legal nullity."
Opponents of gay marriage celebrated the opinion, which sharply rebuked Mayor Gavin Newsom's actions as "unauthorized and unlawful." State law requires marriage to be between "a man and a woman."
Meanwhile, many gay and lesbian couples - scores of whom had flocked to San Francisco in February and March to wed under City Hall's ornate rotunda - responded with tears, protest marches around the state and renewed vows to fight in the legislature and courts for marriage rights.
However emotional the day proved for the couples, it did not end California's same-sex marriage debate. The core question of whether state marriage laws are unconstitutional is winding its way through San Francisco Superior Court and will almost certainly reach the state Supreme Court within two years.
Newsom's decision to issue the licenses stoked a fierce debate over same-sex marriage in an election year.
Similar cases challenging the constitutionality of heterosexual marriage laws will likely soon reach the high courts of at least seven other states. Voters in about a dozen states are poised to decide whether to adopt state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, as Missouri did last month.
Efforts promoted by President Bush to pass a comparable federal amendment died in Congress last month.
Against that backdrop, the state Supreme Court majority opinion by Chief Justice Ronald M. George pointedly opened by noting that the court was considering only the "important but relatively narrow legal issue" of whether San Francisco officials - or any other officials in the state - had the power to flout a state law because they believed it to be unconstitutional.
The city had argued that Newsom was entitled - even obligated - to issue the licenses because he believed that existing state law violated provisions of the state and federal constitutions that forbid discrimination.
While he might have been justified in doing that in a situation where "no reasonable official could believe the statute is constitutional," the court ruled that was not the case here.
San Francisco, George said, could have instead denied a request for a same-sex license and advised that couple to challenge the denial in Superior Court. That has since occurred.
Newsom, who had been elected just a little more than a month before, ordered the county clerk to create gender-neutral licenses and begin issuing them to gay men and lesbians on Feb. 12.
What came next was unscripted. Hundreds of couples swarmed San Francisco's City Hall to wed over Valentine's Day weekend, many with children, parents and friends in tow.
Emotional city workers volunteered their time to help, scrambling to declare as many couples as possible "spouses for life" before a court injunction could bring the experiment to a halt.
But the injunction didn't come. Two Superior Court judges ruled that no imminent harm was apparent.
It was a full month - and 4,037 unions - later that the state Supreme Court intervened to stop the weddings.
Yesterday, Newsom said he "respectfully disagreed" with the court's ruling but vowed to abide by it. His decision to issue the licenses "put a human face on discrimination" that will bolster the city's position as it moves ahead with its Superior Court lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state marriage laws, he said.
The city's actions were challenged by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer and the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Christian legal group that opposes same-sex marriage.
Lockyer said yesterday that he was "pleased that the court has reaffirmed the important legal principle that non-judicial elected officials do not have the authority to unilaterally declare a state law unconstitutional."
But as he has since the controversy erupted, he shared his personal support for same-sex marriage. "I did not pick this fight," he said. "I'd rather sue polluters and Microsoft and energy gougers than [prosecute] this dispute. But it's my duty."
Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel Jordan Lorence was less equivocal, saying the justices had "restored the rule of law in California."
Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan said the ruling contained no real surprises but was in places "very pointed."
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