SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that same-sex couples should be permitted to marry, rejecting state marriage laws as discriminatory.
The court's 4-3 ruling was unlikely to end the debate over gay matrimony in California. A group has circulated petitions for a November ballot initiative that would amend the state Constitution to block same-sex marriage, while the Legislature has twice passed bills to authorize gay marriage.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed both.
The long-awaited court decision stemmed from San Francisco's highly publicized same-sex weddings, which in 2004 helped spur a conservative backlash in a presidential election year and a national dialogue over gay rights.
Several states have since passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Today, 27 states have such amendments.
Yesterday's ruling by the Republican-dominated court affects more than 100,000 same-sex couples in the state, about a quarter of whom have children, according to U.S. census figures.
It came after courts in New York, Washington and New Jersey refused to extend marriage rights to gay couples. Before yesterday, only Massachusetts' top court had ruled in favor of permitting gays to wed.
Gay rights activists said the California decision would help build momentum behind efforts to legalize same-sex unions in Maryland. So far those efforts have failed in state courts and the General Assembly, which passed two narrowly tailored bills this year granting domestic partners, including same-sex couples, a few spousal rights such as hospital visitation.
"As the other states continue to move either legislatively or judicially toward marriage, greater numbers of people understand why this is the fair and just thing to do," said Dan Furmansky, director of Equality Maryland, a leading gay rights group.
Opponents said the California decision illustrates why Gov. Martin O'Malley should veto the domestic partnership bills to prevent encroachment on traditional marriage and Maryland law that defines marriage as between a man and woman.
"The California court is saying that co-existing laws extending the same privileges, the same rights to traditional marriages and unmarried relationships can't live under the same constitution," said Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.
O'Malley, a Democrat, is expected to sign the domestic partner bills, and spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor's office is reviewing the California decision. "Certainly this issue will continue to be a topic of discussion in Annapolis," Abbruzzese said.
The reaction to yesterday's ruling outside the courthouse in San Francisco was one of jubilation as couples, once denied marriage, hugged, kissed, shouted and shook their fists at the sky. Holding up a sign that read, "Life feels different when you're married," Ellen Pontac said she was beyond words.
"Oh, wow," she said. "It felt so good when we got married in San Francisco. This feels better."
She hugged her partner, Shelly Bailes. "The best day of my life was when I met Ellen," Bailes said. "This was as good as that."
The women said they have been together for 34 years. Added Bailes, "This feels good for us. But I can't imagine what it means for all those young couples with their entire lives ahead of them."
A few feet away, Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, was mobbed by reporters and well-wishers.
"As of today, the right to marry is now guaranteed to anyone," she said. "All I know is that we won."
At his Los Angeles home, Jim Smith, a parent and part of a same-sex relationship, also rejoiced. "I'm ecstatic," said Smith, 40, chief technology officer for an online advertising agency. "I think this is the beginning of the end of ostracism, bullying and all the things that used to make people feel less human than others."
Schwarzenegger, who has vetoed two measures that would have authorized same-sex marriage, said yesterday that he would abide by the court's ruling.
"I respect the court's decision, and as governor, I will uphold its ruling," he said in a statement. "Also, as I have said in the past, I will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn this state Supreme Court ruling."
But as early as November, voters could be asked to render their opinion on an amendment that would again attempt to ban same-sex marriage.
A coalition of religious and conservative activists has submitted 1.1 million signatures to qualify the amendment, which would say that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."
Andrew Pugno, an attorney for the initiative's sponsors, said the Supreme Court decision is a boost for the measure because opponents have been saying there is no real threat that same-sex marriages will happen.
"This decision draws a line in the sand and makes it clear that this is the last chance for voters to have a say," Pugno said. "This is proof positive for voters that the courts are out of control and the voters have to step up."
Ron Prentice, executive director of the California Family Council, said the group was "not surprised by the ruling, though extremely disappointed."
He said the group expects "that with the November ballot we will have the opportunity for the people of California to once again define marriage as only between a man and a woman and this time place it into California's Constitution, which would strengthen it and keep it out of the hands of the courts.
"We have not been able to count on the legislature or the courts of California to adhere to the will of the people," Prentice said. "This is yet another example why the people need to go to the polls in November to defend the historic and natural definition of marriage."
In 2000, 61 percent of California voters approved Proposition 22, which said that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California."
Since the ballot measure, California has passed one of the strongest domestic partnership laws in the country, giving registered same-sex couples most of the rights of married people.
The California Supreme Court has six Republican appointees and one Democrat.
Scholars have described the court under the leadership of Chief Justice Ronald M. George as cautious and moderately conservative.
Maura Dolan writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.