SAN FRANCISCO - -The California Supreme Court's decision Tuesday to uphold Proposition 8 and existing same-sex marriages left in place all rights for California's gays and lesbians except access to the label "marriage," but it provided little protection from future ballot measures that could cost gays and other minorities more rights, lawyers and scholars said.
In a 6-1 ruling, the court said the November ballot measure that restored a ban on same-sex marriage was a limited constitutional amendment, not a wholesale revision that would have required a two-thirds vote of the legislature to be placed before voters.
The court also was unanimous in deciding that an estimated 18,000 same sex couples who married before the November election would continue to have their marriages recognized as valid by the state.
Proposition 8 merely "carves out a narrow and limited exception" to the state constitutional protection gays and lesbians now receive, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the majority.
The court majority said gay couples would continue to have the right to choose life partners and enter into "committed, officially recognized and protected family relationships."
Describing Proposition 8's "limited effect," the majority said that simply reserving the term marriage for opposite sex couples "does not have a substantial, or, indeed, even a minimal effect on the governmental plan or framework of California that existed prior to the amendment."
In deciding that gay couples who married in California before the November election will remain married, the court said it would be unfair and might even invite chaos to nullify marriages those couples entered into lawfully.
Ending those marriages would be akin to "throwing property rights into disarray, destroying the legal interests and expectations of thousands of couples and their families, and potentially underming the ability of citizens to plan their lives according to the law as it has been determined by the state's highest court," George wrote.
The decision left gay rights activists nervous and several legal scholars skeptical.
"It leaves us to the kindness of strangers," said Jon W. Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, a gay rights organization. "They could take away anything."
University of California, Davis, law professor Vikram Amar agreed, saying the court defined an illegal revision as a measure that changes the structure of government, not one that takes away individual rights.