Voters put a stop to same-sex marriage in California, dealing a crushing defeat to gay-rights activists in a state they hoped would be a vanguard and putting in doubt as many as 18,000 same-sex marriages conducted since a court ruling made them legal this year.
The gay-rights movement had a rough election elsewhere Tuesday. Amendments to ban gay marriage were approved in Arizona and Florida, and Arkansas voters approved a measure banning unmarried couples from serving as adoptive or foster parents. Supporters made clear that gays and lesbians were their main target.
But California, the nation's most populous state, had been the big prize. Spending for and against Proposition 8 reached $74 million, the most expensive social-issues campaign in U.S. history and the most expensive campaign this year outside the race for the White House. Activists on both sides of the issue saw the measure as critical to building momentum for their causes.
"People believe in the institution of marriage," Frank Schubert, co-manager of the Yes on 8 campaign, said after declaring victory early yesterday. "It's one institution that crosses ethnic divides, that crosses partisan divides. ... People have stood up because they care about marriage, and they care a great deal."
With almost all precincts reporting, election returns showed the measure winning with 52 percent of the vote. An estimated 2 million to 3 million provisional and absentee ballots remained to be tallied, but based on trends and the locations of the votes still outstanding, the margin of support in favor of the initiative was secure.
Leaders of the No on 8 campaign said they were not ready to concede.
"Because Prop 8 involves the sensitive matter of individual rights, we believe it is important to wait until we receive further information about the outcome," Geoff Kors, director of Equality California, said yesterday.
The constitutional amendment limits marriage to heterosexual couples, nullifying the California Supreme Court decision that had made same-sex marriages legal in the state since June.
Similar bans had prevailed in 27 states before Tuesday's elections, but none were in California's situation - with about 18,000 gay couples already married. The state attorney general, Jerry Brown, has said those marriages will remain valid, although legal challenges are possible.
Jake Rowe, 27, and James Eslick, 29, were in the midst of getting married at Sacramento City Hall yesterday morning when someone from the clerk's office stopped the wedding. But not all county clerks stopped sanctioning same-sex marriages yesterday.
Kate Folmar, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said initiatives typically take effect the day after an election, although the results from Tuesday's races will not be certified until Dec. 13.
Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for Brown, said the attorney general's office has yet to decide whether same-sex marriages conducted after Election Day would be valid.
Gay-rights legal groups filed a petition yesterday asking the Supreme Court to invalidate Proposition 8 on the grounds that voters did not have the authority to make such a dramatic change in state law without approval from the Legislature. The court refused to hear a similar petition in June, when gay-rights activists tried to knock the measure off the ballot.
Elsewhere, voters in Colorado and South Dakota rejected measures that could have led to sweeping bans of abortion, and Washington became only the second state - after Oregon - to offer terminally ill people the option of physician-assisted suicide.