A California superior court judge upheld a new state law that is poised to give gay couples who register as domestic partners nearly all the legal benefits and responsibilities that married spouses enjoy. Dismissing the arguments of two groups that sued to have the law struck down before it is scheduled to take effect January 1, Judge Loren E. McMaster ruled Wednesday that assigning spousal privileges such as alimony and parental status to same-sex couples does not violate a voter-approved measure that holds that California can recognize only marriages between a man and a woman. "The parties' obvious fundamental dispute is whether a domestic partnership under the new statute constitutes a marriage. The court concludes that it does not," McMaster wrote. "In the end, although the two relationships now share many, if not most, of the same functional attributes, they are inherently distinct."
The judge, in a move that underscored how far the debate over gay marriage rights has shifted since former governor Gray Davis signed AB 205 last year, also offered his unsolicited opinion that if the purpose of the California Defense of Marriage Act was to prohibit gay couples from enjoying those legal fruits, it was likely unconstitutional. Randy Thomasson, executive director of Campaign for California Families, said his group would appeal Wednesday's ruling. "McMaster has trashed the vote of the people who said they want everything about marriage to stay for a man and a woman," Thomasson said. "The clear and plain reading of these marriage-attacking bills was to create homosexual marriage by another name."
Gay rights advocates applauded the ruling, saying the statute's implementation would herald a new era of legal protection and participation for gay couples who, beginning next year, will have access to family courts for dividing their assets if they split up and be able to take extended leave from work to care for a partner. The law, in fact, gives same-sex couples all the duties and privileges of marriage available under state law except the ability to file joint income taxes. "Domestic partnership is a really important step forward for the gay community, but it is not equal treatment because what is being denied is access to the institution of marriage," said Jon Davidson of Lambda Legal, a gay rights advocacy group that helped to defend the law. "Once AB 205 comes into effect, it will become clear to people that if you allow same-sex couples to have all these rights and responsibilities, why won't you let them have marriage?"
In upholding the new law, McMaster largely adopted the reasoning put forth by the state attorney general and lawyers for Equality California, the state's largest gay rights lobbying group--that the institution of marriage is much more than a collection of state-sanctioned duties and rights. As such, it can't be undermined when those legal accoutrements are changed or expanded to other groups, he said. "A marriage is no less or more a marriage when government adds or subtracts yet another restriction, duty, or benefit exclusive to the marital relationship," he said. "The relationship remains a 'marriage' in name and nature, nonetheless."
Meanwhile, the city of San Francisco and a coalition of gay rights groups have sued the state to have California's one man-one woman marriage laws overturned on the grounds that they violate the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians. Although his opinion is not binding in those cases, McMaster seemed to hint that it won't be long before California follows Massachusetts in legalizing marriage for same-sex partners. "It is questionable, in light of recent statutes and court decisions, whether the state may articulate a rational basis to deny rights to same-sex couples that are granted to persons who are married," he said.