California’s Supreme Court quashed a ban on gay marriage in a historic ruling on Thursday, effectively leaving same-sex couples in the US’ most populous state free to tie the knot.
In an opinion that analysts say could have nationwide implications for the issue, the seven-member panel voted 4-3 in favor of plaintiffs who argued that restricting marriage to men and women was discriminatory.
“Limiting the designation of marriage to a union ‘between a man and a woman’ is unconstitutional and must be stricken from the statute,” California Chief Justice Ron George said in the written opinion.
The ruling added that all California couples had a “basic civil right” to marry “without regard to their sexual orientation.”
Before Thursday only one US state — Massachusetts — allowed gay marriage, although California, New Jersey and Vermont have legislation which grants same-sex partners many of the same legal rights as married couples.
Plaintiffs and gay-rights activists erupted with joy after the victory.
“It’s the best day of my life, quite honestly I’m thrilled for all of us,” Diane Olson said.
In San Francisco, couples immediately began lining up at the city clerk’s office for marriage licenses, even though officials said they will not be able to issue any for at least 30 days, when the decision takes effect.
Thursday’s ruling came after a long-running legal battle that erupted in 2000 when California voters approved a law declaring that only marriages between men and women could be legally recognized.
In February 2004, San Francisco defied state law by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, arguing that existing laws were illegal because they violated equal rights legislation.
A court later halted the issuance of licenses and declared that same-sex marriages that took place during this period were void.
However, San Francisco and civil rights activists waged a legal battle arguing that restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples was unconstitutional and that the law should be struck down.
In 2005 the San Francisco Superior Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that there was no justification for refusing to allow marriages.
But the decision was overturned in 2006 by the California Court of Appeal, which ruled in a 2-1 decision that the state’s desire to “carry out the expressed wishes of a majority” was sufficient to preserve the existing law.
California lawmakers have also voted in favor of gay marriage but the bill was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has said that the matter is for the state’s court system to decide on.
Legal analysts say Thursday’s court ruling could have wide-ranging implications for other US states, noting the California Supreme Court’s history of landmark rulings.
“The California Supreme Court’s example is often emulated and it often is sort of a groundbreaker,” said David Cruz, a law professor at the University of Southern California and an expert in constitutional law.
“In the 20th century California was the first state to strike down laws against interracial marriage. They did that 19 years before the US Supreme Court got around to it,” he said.
But Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, reacted with dismay, insisting “marriage is naturally for a man and a woman.”
“If the institution of marriage is redefined and therefore destroyed in the law, the well-being of children is threatened, both emotionally, socially, even physically,” Thomasson said.