Raising the Roof at City Hall
BY Sue Rochman
May 15 2008 12:00 AM ET
The California supreme court ruled Thursday that lesbian and gay couples are entitled to the right to marry in California and that not allowing them to do so violates the state’s constitution.
In a 4-3 decision, drafted by Chief Justice Ronald George, the court stated, “In light of the fundamental nature of the substantive rights embodied in the right to marry -- and their central importance to an individual’s opportunity to live a happy, meaningful, and satisfying life as a full member of society -- the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all individuals and couples, without regard to their sexual orientation.”
The court added: “Furthermore, in contrast to earlier times, our state now recognizes that an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual’s sexual orientation, and, more generally, that an individual’s sexual orientation — like a person’s race or gender — does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights. We therefore conclude that in view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples.”
The widely awaited ruling (available in full at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/courts/supreme/) was greeted with cheers in San Francisco, where plaintiffs, legal experts, and politicians gathered to discuss the court’s decision.
“We won!” exclaimed NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendall, with tears in her eyes, before a throng of supporters gathered in the rotunda of San Francisco’s City Hall. “And there is not one lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person in this country who is not better off because we won.”
Mayor Gavin Newsom was greeted with thunderous applause when he entered City Hall to join a celebratory press conference. “This day is about real people and their lives,” he said. “This is about Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. It’s about civil rights. It’s about time! And as California goes, so goes the rest of the country!”
In an exclusive interview with The Advocate, Newsom joked that he told Lyon and Martin “not to get into a fight. We need you. My ideal is to have them be the first couple in the city to be married.”
It was four years ago that Mayor Newsom re-lit the fuse under the gay marriage debate when he announced that the city of San Francisco would permit same-sex couples to marry. Lyon and Martin were his first customers. More than 4,000 couples eventually would be married in San Francisco between February 12 and March 11, when the supreme court ordered the marriages to come to a halt.
Five months later, the court nullified the marriages and sent the question of whether same-sex marriage was unconstitutional to the lower courts. In March 2005, a San Francisco superior court judge ruled the law unconstitutional. In October 2006, the state appeals court, in a 2-1 ruling, overturned that ruling when it decided that California state did have the right to limit marriages to heterosexual couples. That decision was appealed by the city of San Francisco and gay rights groups, a move that led to today’s dramatic decision.
The ruling came 72 days after the court heard oral arguments on March 4 about the meaning and significance of marriage and whether barring same-sex couples from marrying violated their right to fair and equal treatment.