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A California judge has opened the way for the nation's most populous state to follow Massachusetts in allowing same-sex couples to tie the knot, but both sides in the same-sex marriage debate predict a vigorous court fight first. San Francisco County superior court judge Richard Kramer ruled Monday that while withholding marriage licenses from gay and lesbian couples has been the status quo, it constitutes discrimination the state can no longer justify. "The state's protracted denial of equal protection cannot be justified simply because such constitutional violation has become traditional," Kramer wrote. "Simply put, same-sex marriage cannot be prohibited solely because California has always done so before." Ushering out a social norm long considered sacred won't happen right away, however. Kramer's decision is stayed automatically for 60 days to allow time for appeals, and conservative groups that oppose same-sex marriage vowed to uphold California's one woman-one man marriage laws. "For a single judge to rule there is no conceivable purpose for preserving marriage as one man and one woman is mind-boggling," said Liberty Counsel president Mathew Staver, whose group represents the Campaign for California Families, one of two organizations that joined the state's attorney general's office in defending California's existing laws. "This decision will be gasoline on the fire of the pro-marriage movement in California as well as the rest of the country," Staver said. Supporters of same-sex marriage said they are prepared for a lengthy appeal process, but they described Kramer's ruling as an unqualified victory. They compare it to the 1948 state supreme court decision that made California the first state to legalize interracial marriage. "Today's ruling is an important step toward a more fair and just California that rejects discrimination and affirms family values for all California families," San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera said. Jeanne Rizzo, 58, and Pali Cooper, 49, one of the first couples to be denied the chance to marry after a state supreme court ruling last year put an end to the granting of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in San Francisco, said they were "basking" in Monday's decision. "We know we have many steps ahead of us, but we have the opportunity to go from here standing in dignity, not defense.... It is always better to do that," Rizzo said. The couples, represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, and the American Civil Liberties Union, had argued that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated their civil rights. California assemblyman Ray Haynes, a Republican, predicted that Monday's ruling would spur efforts to amend the state constitution to ban gay nuptials, as was done in 13 other states last year. Haynes has introduced a bill to place such a constitutional amendment on the November ballot, but if the Democrat-controlled legislature defeats it, he said opponents of same-sex marriage would accomplish the task themselves by petition. "This ruling demonstrates absolutely what we have to do, which is to amend the constitution so that we can take the question out of the hands of any judge anywhere at any time," he said. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Monday he doesn't "believe in gay marriage" but would not favor amending the state constitution if the high court upholds Kramer's decision. "I think that this will be now going eventually to the supreme court in California, and we will see what the decision is," he said in an interview on MSNBC's Hardball. "And whatever that decision is, we will stay by that, because I believe in abiding by the law and sticking with the law."