Judge lets gay weddings in San Francisco go on

SAN FRANCISCO - A judge said yesterday that San Francisco appears to be violating the law by issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, but he declined to order an immediate halt to the weddings.

A conservative group had asked Judge James Warren to immediately stop the weddings and void the 2,464 same-sex marriages performed in the city since Thursday. Instead, Warren issued a nonbinding order urging the city to halt the weddings, and he told city lawyers to return March 29 to explain their legal position.

"We are extremely happy and gratified that a stay was not issued," City Attorney Dennis Herrerra said.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said through a spokeswoman that the city would keep performing the marriages despite the judge's request.

"We will continue to issue marriage licenses until the court rules we can no longer do so," spokeswoman Darlene Chiu said after the judge's decision.

The Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund had asked the Superior Court judge order the city to stop issuing the licenses or show cause explaining why it would not.

Warren did just that - after arguing for a while about the punctuation in the group's proposed order. But he made his order nonbinding, frustrating conservatives who also failed yesterday to persuade another judge to halt the weddings as part of a separate challenge.

Judge Ronald Quidachay said he was not prepared to rule until at least Friday in the challenge filed by the Campaign for California Families.

"This is municipal anarchy," said Robert Tyler, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, which argued the case before Warren on behalf of the Proposition 22 group.

Gay couples from as far away as Europe have been lining up outside City Hall since Thursday, when city officials decided to begin marrying same-sex couples in a collective act of official civil disobedience.

Newsom has said the city will pursue a constitutional challenge through the courts. He says the equal protection clause of the California Constitution makes denying marriage licenses to gay couples illegal.

"What trumps any proposition is the California Constitution," Herrera said yesterday.

The conservatives want the courts to nullify the marriages and block the city from granting any more "gender-neutral" licenses.

The newly elected mayor's decision to permit gay marriages, while still legally unsettled, has intensified the national debate over whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry and enjoy the many benefits only married couples receive.

The Campaign for California Families said state law explicitly defines marriage as "a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman." The group also argues that San Francisco is violating a ballot measure approved by California voters in 2000 that said only marriages between a man and woman are valid.

The final word is expected to come later from the California Supreme Court, as both sides have promised to appeal.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged city officials to stop the same-sex weddings.

"I support all of California's existing laws that provide domestic partnership benefits and protections," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "However, Californians spoke on the issue of same-sex marriage when they overwhelmingly approved California's law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman."

In November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that its state constitution permits gay marriages. Lawmakers there are debating a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.

In Virginia, gay rights proponents scored victories in the conservative-leaning House of Delegates on measures involving access to health insurance and home loans.

The House, which passed a bill last week reaffirming the state's ban on gay marriage, narrowly passed legislation Monday that would allow employers to offer group insurance benefits to gay partners who live together. It rejected a measure seeking to make state mortgage loans available only to married heterosexuals or blood relatives.

And Republican legislators in New Hampshire are pushing a bill that would specifically prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The bill is being proposed partly in reaction to recent developments in Massachusetts. About 350 people gathered at the New Hampshire State House yesterday to hear more than three hours of testimony on the bill. So many people showed up that the hearing had to be moved to the New Hampshire Hall of Representatives to accommodate the crowd.

"We should not let the courts of any state define what happens here in New Hampshire," said state Sen. Jack Barnes, a Raymond Republican and one of the cosponsors of the bill.

Gay advocates said the law's effect would be sweeping, blocking recognition not only of gay marriages performed elsewhere, but also of civil unions and possibly domestic partnership rights, as well.

The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.