The California supreme court declined a request by the state attorney general Friday to immediately shut down San Francisco's gay weddings and to nullify the more than 3,400 marriages already performed. At the prodding of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Bill Lockyer asked the court to intervene in the emotionally charged debate while justices consider the legality of the marriages. But the justices declined and told the city and a conservative group that opposes the marriages to file new legal briefs by March 5. Lockyer has been under fire from every side since San Francisco, under the directive of Mayor Gavin Newsom, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples two weeks ago. More than 3,400 couples have tied the knot since then. "It's a matter of statewide concern, and voters want to know, Californians want to know, and couples that participated in ceremonies need to know the status of their relationship," Lockyer said.
The San Francisco mayor sued the state last week on the grounds that California's marriage laws violate the state constitution's equal-protection clause. Pressure on Lockyer to act intensified when Schwarzenegger directed him to "take immediate steps" to halt San Francisco's marriage march.
Supporters of the marriages had criticized Lockyer for rushing the issue to the state's highest court, while gay marriage opponents have criticized Lockyer for not acting sooner. The California supreme court has a history of addressing marriage and gay rights cases. It was the first state high court in the nation to legalize interracial marriage 56 years ago. Twenty-five years ago, the court upheld gay rights by saying businesses could not arbitrarily discriminate against homosexuals. Meanwhile, Republican activists who helped mount the recall of former governor Gray Davis last year have announced plans to seek the removal of Lockyer, who they say has "neglected his duty" to enforce state marriage laws.
The California challenge came as 21 same-sex couples exchanged wedding vows Friday on the steps of Village Hall in New Paltz, N.Y., opening up another front in the growing national debate over gay marriage. A county clerk in New Mexico issued 26 licenses earlier this month before the state attorney general declared them invalid. More than 30 gay couples in Iowa City, Iowa, were denied marriage licenses Friday by an openly lesbian county official who said she had to uphold the law. "What we're witnessing in America today is the flowering of the largest civil rights movement the country's had in a generation," said New Paltz's Green Party mayor, Jason West. New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer refused a request for 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 are legal. "The validity of the marriages and the legality of the mayor's action will be determined in due course in the courts," Spitzer said.