SAN FRANCISCO - The California Supreme Court refused to immediately halt San Francisco's same-sex marriages yesterday, but the court indicated that it would swiftly consider hearing legal challenges to the city's decision to allow those nuptials.
The state's highest court gave San Francisco seven days to present arguments to the judges why they should not immediately order the city to stop marrying gays and invalidate the 3,400 licenses already issued.
The city plans to ask the court to determine whether the state constitution protects same-sex unions.
Under state law, marriage is defined as between "a man and a woman." The city argues that the state constitution, however, protects against discrimination and therefore allows same-sex marriages.
The court issued two orders in the gay marriage dispute yesterday afternoon after state Attorney General Bill Lockyer filed a lengthy petition asking the court to intervene immediately. His petition argued that the same-sex marriage licenses violate state law and have caused conflict and uncertainty within various government agencies.
In a sign that the national controversy over gay marriages continues to spread far beyond the city at the center of the issue, a small New York town thrust itself into the fray yesterday by permitting the weddings of 25 same-sex couples.
"What we're witnessing in America today is the flowering of the largest civil rights movement the country's had in a generation," said Jason West, the 26-year-old mayor of the village of New Paltz, N.Y., who officiated over the gay weddings there.
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer refused to issue an injunction against the New Paltz ceremonies, noting that such a measure should only be a last resort.
He did not issue an opinion on whether the marriages were legal. "The validity of the marriages and the legality of the mayors action will be determined in due course in the courts," he said.
In California, Lockyer said San Francisco had refused to respond to a directive issued by the California Department of Health Services to stop issuing licenses other than those approved by the state. The city changed the wording on the standard marriage licenses Feb. 12 to accommodate same-sex couples.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had sent a strongly worded letter to Lockyer ordering him to take immediate action to stop the marriages. The attorney general responded that he was already anticipating going to court and that the governor did not have the authority to order him to act.
Lockyer, a liberal Democrat who has support from backers of gay marriage, described San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to marry gays as "a principled stand" but added that "there's a way they could have done it without all the drama" by going to court first - before granting the licenses.
The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.