With the 172-page ruling, including a majority opinion penned by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, California becomes the second U.S. state behind Massachusetts to allow gay marriage, according to news reports (See Massachusetts Court Says Gays Entitled to Marry ). The decision was a product of a deeply divided court that narrowly approved the final holding 4 to 3.
class=”times”>However, the decision isn’t likely to have much impact on companies’ obligations to employees, Margaret Hart Edwards, a San Francisco employment lawyer at Littler Mendelson, told the Wall Street Journal. State laws already require that domestic partners receive the benefits granted to married couples, she said (see Murky Waters ). Vermont, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Connecticut now permit civil unions, while California already had a domestic-partner registration law. More than a dozen other states give gay couples some legal rights.
The latest decision grew out of the highly-publicized series of same-sex weddings in San Francisco.
After a month of jubilant same-sex weddings, the California Supreme Court ordered the city to stop issuing licenses to gay couples, later invalidated the licenses, and declined to rule on the constitutionality of a state ban on same-sex marriage until lower courts acted first, the media reports said.
A San Francisco trial judge decided in 2005 that gays should be permitted to wed, but a state appellate court later overturned that decision on a 2-1 vote, ruling that only the Legislature or the voters could change California’s traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Thursday’s holding by the state’s high court threw out that appellate decision.
Lawyers in favor of same-sex marriage argued that the marriage law discriminated on the basis of both gender and sexual orientation, while their opponents countered that both women and men were barred from marrying members of their own sex.Supporters claimed California's domestic-partner law, which gives gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples regarding financial support, property, child custody, and taxes doesn't go far enough in providing equal treatment to same-sex couples.
"In light of all of these circumstances, we conclude that retention of the traditional definition of marriage does not constitute a state interest sufficiently compelling, under the strict scrutiny equal protection standard, to justify withholding that status from same-sex couples," George wrote in the majority holding. "Accordingly, insofar as the provisions of (state law) draw a distinction between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples and exclude the latter from access to the designation of marriage, we conclude these statutes are unconstitutional."
The reaction outside the courthouse in San Francisco was one of jubilation as couples hugged, kissed, shouted, and shook their fists at the sky, the news accounts said. Holding up a sign that says, "Life feels different when you're married," Helen Pontac told a reporter she was beyond words.
"Oh, wow," she said. "It felt so good when we got married in San Francisco. This feels better."
A Strong Reaction
Opponents of same-sex-marriage had a much
different reaction, the news reports said. Ron Prentice,
executive director of the Sacramento and Riverside-based
California Family Council, said the group was "not
surprised by the ruling, though extremely
According to the media reports, there is a strong chance voters will be weighing a ballot initiative to change the state Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger previously announced his opposition to the ballot initiative and reiterated his opposition Thursday.
"I respect the court's decision and as governor, I will uphold its ruling," Schwarzenegger said within minutes of the ruling. "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."
Prentice said his 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."
In Thursday's majority opinion, George said the ruling should result in state officials handling marriage licenses doing so in a manner consistent with the decision.
"We determine that the language (in state law) limiting the designation of marriage to a union "between a man and a woman" â€¦ and that the remaining statutory language must be understood as making the designation of marriage available both to opposite-sex and same-sex couples," George wrote. "In addition, because the limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples imposed by (California law) can have no constitutionally permissible effect in light of the constitutional conclusions set forth in this opinion, that provision cannot stand. Plaintiffs are entitled to the issuance of a (court order) directing the appropriate state officials to take all actions necessary to effectuate our ruling in this case so as to ensure that county clerks and other local officials throughout the state, in performing their duty to enforce the marriage statutes in their jurisdictions, apply those provisions in a manner consistent with the decision of this court."
The decision is available here .