Calif. justices halt same-sex weddings

SAN FRANCISCO - The California Supreme Court ordered an immediate halt to same-sex weddings in San Francisco yesterday, while Massachusetts lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages in the only state where they have been ruled legal.

Teary-eyed couples were quickly turned away at San Francisco's City Hall, where more than 3,700 gay couples have tied the knot in the past month.

"We were filling out the application, and they told us to stop," said Art Adams, who was the first to be denied as he and partner Devin Baker sought a license.

"It's heartbreaking. I don't understand why two people in love should be prevented from expressing it."

On the other side of the country, Massachusetts legislators returned to the Capitol to consider a constitutional amendment that would strip gay couples of their court-granted right to marriage but allow civil unions.

The amendment won early approval, but it still must weather several additional votes and anticipated maneuvering by gay marriage supporters.

Massachusetts took center stage in the national debate over gay marriage after a landmark decision by its highest court in November that was reaffirmed last month.

The rulings set the stage for the nation's first legally sanctioned gay marriages May 17.

Lawmakers seeking to put a gay marriage ban before Massachusetts voters were unsuccessful during a joint House-Senate session last month.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom waded into the debate about the same time, ordering his administration Feb. 12 to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

Newsom's defiance of California law prompted several other cities across the nation to follow suit, and last month President Bush mentioned the San Francisco weddings when he announced that he supports changing the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriages.

Lawmakers in dozens of states have also taken up the issue.

The high court's unanimous decision yesterday marked a victory for conservatives who have been fighting to block the rush to the altar by gay couples.

Had the court declined to intervene, the legal battle over gay marriage in California would have taken years as gay marriage lawsuits traveled through the state's lower courts.

"They restored order to chaos in San Francisco," said Joshua Carden, an attorney with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund.

Jon Davidson, a lawyer for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights legal aid group, said the ruling simply puts the issue on hold.

"They are saying that until we hear this, you are on pause."

The court did not rule on the legality of gay marriages, and justices indicated they would decide in the coming months whether Newsom had the authority to allow the weddings.

In Massachusetts, both sides acknowledged that they face a long battle. The gay marriage ban needs to be approved by two consecutive legislatures before reaching the ballot. The earliest that could happen is November 2006.