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Superior court judge: California marriage law is unconstitutional

Superior court judge: California marriage law is unconstitutional

A judge ruled Monday that California can no longer justify limiting marriage to the union of one man and one woman, a legal milestone that, if upheld on appeal, would pave the way for the nation's most populous state to follow Massachusetts in allowing same-sex couples to wed. In an opinion that had been awaited because of San Francisco's historical role as a gay rights battleground, San Francisco County superior court judge Richard Kramer said that withholding marriage licenses from same-sex couples is unconstitutional. "It appears that no rational purpose exists for limiting marriage in this state to opposite-sex partners," Kramer wrote. The judge wrote that the state's historical definition of marriage, by itself, cannot justify the unconstitutional denial of equal protection for gays and lesbians and their right to marry. "The state's protracted denial of equal protection cannot be justified simply because such constitutional violation has become traditional," Kramer wrote. Kramer's decision came in a pair of lawsuits seeking to overturn California's statutory ban on same-sex marriage. They were brought by the city of San Francisco and a dozen same-sex couples last March, after the California supreme court halted the four-week marriage spree Mayor Gavin Newsom had initiated when he directed city officials to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples in defiance of state law. It could be months or years, however, before the state actually sanctions same-sex marriage, if it sanctions the unions at all. Two legal groups representing religious conservatives joined with California's attorney general in defending the existing laws. Robert Tyler, an attorney with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, said the group would appeal Kramer's ruling. Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has said in the past that he expected the matter eventually would have to be settled by the California supreme court. Therese Stewart, attorney for the city and county of San Francisco, said today's decision is historic, setting the framework for future challenges in state appeals courts and at the ballot box that eventually will determine that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry. "It's a foregone conclusion that it's going to go up on appeal," Stewart said. Meanwhile, a pair of bills pending before the California legislature would put a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the November ballot. If California voters follow the 13 other states that approved such amendments last year, that would put the issue out of the control of lawmakers and the courts. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs and their lawyers said Kramer's ruling is a milestone for California, akin to the 1948 state supreme court decision that made California the first state in the nation to legalize interracial marriage. The decision is the latest development in a national debate on the legality and morality of same-sex marriage that has been raging since 2003, when the highest court in Massachusetts decided that denying gay couples the right to wed was unconstitutional in that state. In the wake of the Massachusetts ruling, gay rights advocates filed lawsuits seeking to strike down traditional marriage laws in several other states, and opponents responded by proposing state and federal constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Kramer is the fourth trial court judge in recent months to decide that the right to marry and its attendant benefits must be extended to same-sex couples. Two Washington State judges, ruling last summer in separate cases, held that prohibiting same-sex marriage violates that state's constitution, and on February 4 a judge in Manhattan ruled in favor of five gay couples who had been denied marriage licenses by New York City. That ruling applies only in the city but could extend statewide if upheld on appeal. Similar cases are pending in trial courts in Connecticut and Maryland. Just as many judges have gone the other way in recent months, however, refusing to accept the argument that keeping gays and lesbians from marrying violates their civil rights. A New Jersey judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by seven gay couples fighting to have their unions legally recognized. Most recently, the Indiana court of appeals in January upheld that state's gay marriage ban. All the cases are on appeal. The California lawsuits have been closely watched. The state has the highest percentage of same-sex partners in the nation, and its legislature has gone further than any other in voluntarily providing gay couples the perks of marriage without a court order. Since January 1, same-sex couples registering as domestic partners in California are granted virtually all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, including access to divorce courts, the ability to collect child support, and the responsibility for a partner's debts. So in California, the arguments for striking down the gay marriage ban have centered as much on the social meaning of marriage as the benefits it affords as a legal institution. The couples, represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, and the American Civil Liberties Union, conceded that California's domestic-partnership law may be the strongest in the nation outside of the Vermont law allowing civil unions. But they claimed it still does not go far enough because it creates a separate and inherently unequal marriage-like institution for same-sex couples. The attorney general's office also cited the domestic-partnership law as evidence that California does not discriminate against gays and maintained that tradition dictates that marriage should be restricted to opposite-sex couples. Two groups opposed to marriage equality for gay couples, the Campaign for California Families and the Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund, argued that the state has a legitimate interest in restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples as a way of encouraging procreation. (AP)

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